Telecoms engineers are facing verbal and physical threats during the lockdown, as baseless conspiracy theories linking coronavirus to the roll-out of 5G technology spread by celebrities such as Amanda Holden prompt members of the public to abuse those maintaining vital mobile phone and broadband networks.
Facebook has removed one anti-5G group in which users were being encouraged to supply footage of them destroying mobile phone equipment, with some contributors seemingly under the pretence that it may stop the spread of coronavirus and some running leaderboards of where equipment had been targeted.
Video footage of a 70ft (20 metre) telephone mast on fire in Birmingham this week has also circulated widely alongside claims it was targeted by anti-5G protesters. Network operator EE told the Guardian that its engineers were still on site assessing the cause of the fire but it “looks likely at this time” that it was an arson attack.
The company said it would be working with the police to find the culprits. It said: “To deliberately take away mobile connectivity at a time when people need it more than ever to stay connected to each other, is a reckless, harmful and dangerous thing to do. We will try to restore full coverage as quickly as possible, but the damage caused by the fire is significant.”
5G is the next generation mobile phone network and it promises much higher connection speeds, lower latency (response times) and to be more reliable than the creaking 4G networks we have now.
It will be much faster, with download speeds 5-10 times quicker than 4G to start with, meaning a movie will download in seconds rather than minutes. Over the next few years it should become even faster, as the technology matures. It will also have lower latency, the time it takes for something to happen: tap a link and the download will start faster.
But perhaps the most important thing 5G will immediately do for users is increase the carrying capacity of the masts, meaning more people can connect at the same time.
Samuel Gibbs, consumer technology editor
The problem has become so bad that engineers working for BT Openreach, which provides home broadband services, have also taken to posting public pleas on anti-5G Facebook groups asking to be spared the on-street abuse as they are not involved in maintaining mobile networks.
Industry lobby group Mobile UK said the incidents were affecting efforts to maintain networks that are supporting home working and providing critical connectivity to the emergency services, vulnerable consumers and hospitals. Telecoms engineers are considered key workers under the government’s guidelines.
In one widely circulated video that has attracted millions of views on Twitter alone, individuals working for the broadband company Community Fibre are abused by a woman who claimed without any evidence that they were installing 5G as part of a plot to kill the population.
“You know when they turn this on, it’s going to kill everyone, and that’s why they’re building the hospitals,” she tells the baffled engineers on a London street. “Do you have children, do you have parents? When they turn that switch on, bye bye momma. Are they paying you well enough to kill people?”
A spokesperson for the company said it does not use 5G anywhere in its network and praised the calm response of its staff.
Media regulator Ofcom on Thursday warned that it was monitoring broadcasters who spread the discredited theory, although the coverage has spread more widely on social networks such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Next Door.
Almost every new generation of mobile phone telephony has attracted fresh theories about health risks, and similar 5G theories were already widespread before the pandemic but have been given a new lease of life by the crisis. Other variants on the baseless theory suggest the virus has instead been invented as cover for deaths caused by 5G rollout, while groups that previously claimed the mobile signal caused cancer or brain damage are now suggesting it is also responsible for a respiratory disease.
Social media posts from celebrities such as singer Anne Marie have helped spread the theory, while Holden, a judge on Britain’s Got Talent, shared a link to a popular Change.org petition promoting the rumour that the symptoms of coronavirus are in reality due to residing near a 5G mast. The petition was subsequently removed following inquiries from the Guardian.
International radiation experts have repeatedly made clear that the new high-speed telephone system does not pose a risk to humans, while pointing out that the coronavirus has spread widely in many countries without any 5G coverage, such as Iran.