Mast conspiracies: after 5G’s bad reception, can marketing help it connect?

The Drum 23 Sep 2020 07:00

Back in April, protestors (who had organized over mobile networks) went about torching phone masts in Belfast, Birmingham and Merseyside, hindering telecoms infrastructure at the peak of Covid-19. Industry body Mobile UK said that around 77 towers were attacked that month – and that, despite the intentions of the conspiracy theorists, most of these were not 5G-enabled.

There were also more than 40 instances of physical or verbal attacks on engineers, with O2 equipping its staff with signs reading ‘O2 Engineer Key Worker: Keeping your network running’ to dissuade would-be attackers.

Anti-5G groups on Facebook and WhatsApp were the breeding ground for these ideas, striking at the intersection of anti-vax, wellness, pseudoscience and conspiracy groups, while uncritical press coverage legitimised the theories.

But rather than wasting column space repeating debunked conspiracies (you can read up on fact-checking charity Full Fact’s briefing here), we wanted to find out whether 5G – the supposed tech of the future – even has a future.

A YouGov survey from October 2019 found that while 89% of Brits had heard of it, only 2% had a 5G contract and only 27% intended to get one. Fast forward to June 2020 and that number remained at 27%.

“It is now polluted. My 71-year-old mom uses a Motorola mobile and she says she doesn’t ever want 5G.”

“From 4G to 5G, we‘ve gone from a faster device to one that can ‘control your mind can sterilise your children’. Maybe we‘re entering a period where some people think new tech is good and others think it is evil.”

“I don’t know how you win this one,“ says Guyatt. “These people are now in the vacuum. The companies refuse to offer a clear line or say these people are lunatics. They’ve all fallen asleep. They waited too long. We were talking about the dangers of 5G before you could even buy 5G.”

Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke said there were three laws to adhere to in his favoured genre, the third of which is that ”any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. Are the witchcraft-style conspiracies and accusations a byproduct that the tech is so complex, few can explain it?

3G was portable broadband, 4G was faster and 5G, Cobbold says, is an “exponential leap that is harder to articulate, with more of an architectural and structural benefit. 80% of the things it will do haven't even been invented yet”.

And, he adds, there hasn’t seen enough unity from the telcos.

Could an ad campaign tackle the scaremongering, much like the auto industry is doing to address misinformation and doubts about the effectiveness of electric and hybrid cars?

But, he concludes, just as Orange once posited that ‘The Future’s Bright’, 5G might need such a landmark campaign.

Speaking to The Drum, Nina Bibby, the chief marketing officer of O2 UK, tells of her high hopes for 5G, citing a recent McKinsey report that predicts it ”could boost global GDP by up to $2tn by 2030”.

She says the company will do more to ”tackle the issue and help keep consumers informed”, including working with industry body Mobile UK. As for 5G itself, she says that will deliver fast, reliable connectivity, where movies can download in mere seconds.

Bibby doesn’t believe that misinformation has hurt demand and says that O2 UK is ”ahead” of its 5G development targets.

With the consultancy, Meijer looks to establish the baseline 5G knowledge of the boardrooms she’s pitching to. “There was limited awareness of the range of benefits of 5G beyond faster data rates and better coverage.”

The real-world benefits are still being discovered, says Meijer. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are still being invented. “From rethinking car factories in the UK to trialling connected ambulances in Italy to fully autonomous passenger ferries in Germany...” O2, meanwhile, is working with Northumbrian Water Group to develop operational efficiencies, AR mapping and remote expert learning. And it is working with Glasgow University to develop a fully-connected Covid-19 testing clinic on wheels.

”There are many positive stories and use cases for 5G. The wider 5G community – and I include us here – needs to continue to tell these interesting and inspiring stories to engage prospects.”

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CobboldMobile UKWill GuyattGuyattBMB
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