Making Sense of 5G: Insights and Experiences

How do you make sense of 5G? Research, diversity, and skills

I’m Daisy Curtis, a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), my research examines how people make sense of, and engage with, 5G. I’m currently undertaking an internship with 5G RuralDorset hosted by Telint Ltd. In this blogpost you’ll find out why and how a social scientist is studying 5G, what it’s been like being a woman researching 5G, and what I’m up to on my internship.

Digital Geographies of 5G? 
If I told you I’m researching 5G and that I’m a Geographer, what would your reaction be? Would you ask why Geography is relevant to 5G? Perhaps you’re wondering if I’m mapping geographical coverage. When people in the 5G sector ask me what field my PhD is in, they don’t expect the answer: Geography.

So what does Geography have to do with 5G? 
Geography is about the interaction between the human and physical world. Expanding out from that, there are a range of sub-disciplines focusing on the processes, tensions, materials, and practices which construct our world. Geography therefore provides a way to think about 5G holistically.

There are a range of social, cultural, political and environmental questions entangled in the development of 5G. Questions include: what opportunities does 5G provide? What are the challenges of infrastructure roll-out? What do people think about 5G? How is knowledge about 5G generated and transferred? Exploring these questions (and others) provides insights into the relationship between people and 5G. This is important because technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s embedded within society. Therefore, to understand and effectively use any technology, including 5G, we must also understand the societal context.

What does my research involve?
Recently I’ve been interviewing people to find out what they really think about 5G – asking about challenges they’ve faced, opportunities and tensions they’ve experienced, and what they think about the future of 5G.

Alongside this, I’ve been analysing reports, articles, and videos from pro-5G and Stop 5G groups. The most surreal experience was witnessing a claim about 5G and Covid-19 expressed in a single tweet in January 2020 transform into a trending topic on Twitter by the following April.

Before lockdown, I was attending 5G events ranging from 5G Realised to the IET’s 5G 2020 – Unleashed as well as talks by Stop 5G communities. At these events you could normally spot me taking notes about how 5G was being discussed.

Researching 5G as a woman PhD student
My research data highlights a gender diversity issue within the 5G sector – at one 5G conference approximately 15% of conference delegates were women[1]. The participation of women at 5G conferences is often informally discussed. At one conference two women mentioned that the lack of representation at these events is normal. At another conference, a man sitting next to me expressed his frustration that he was watching another all male panel. The lack of gender diversity is the most striking feature of the pro-5G events I’ve attended.

My experiences as a PhD researcher have been mixed. I’ve experienced tangible benefits from free student registration which makes events inclusive. However, I’ve also experienced active exclusion. Whilst en-route to one conference, I was informed that I was not allowed to attend because I was a student, despite having had my attendance previously confirmed. I was told that an exception would be made to allow me to attend the second day provided I dress smartly as it was a business event. This was counter to the event information which explicitly outlined that there was no dress code and encouraged delegates to dress comfortably. Needless to say I attended both days of the conference.

My data and experiences illustrate that more needs to be done – the number of all male panels must be addressed, and students should be offered free registration. For the future of technology to be successful, the conferences which imagine this future should have better gender representation and engage the next generation.

From lockdown set-backs to an internship
The above is in contrast to my experience at a DCMS 5G Create Briefing last year, where I met Colin Wood (Project Lead) and Dave Happy (Collaboration Lead) from 5G RuralDorset. After the conference we chatted over coffee about 5G RuralDorset and the four main research areas: Future of Food, Rural Business Accelerator, Connected Coast, and Innovation Accelerator.

After our coffee we agreed to stay in touch, however, within two weeks lockdown was announced. Like many researchers, the pandemic radically impacted my PhD and much of my data collection had to stop. Fortunately, with support from the 5G RuralDorset project team I began shadowing some of the project’s work, which provided vital research data.

Over time my shadowing turned into a 6 month internship with 5G RuralDorset, hosted by Telint Ltd, and funded by the South West Doctoral Training Partnership (ESRC). We have many plans for the internship including a final report for DCMS. So far, I’ve been researching and writing reports about technologies within the 5G ecosystem, and attending 5G RuralDorset meetings ranging from Project Management meetings to research area discussions involving the Small Robot Company. Alongside this, I’ve been supporting the United Kingdom Telecoms Data Taskforce (UKTDTF) by co-authoring a report on the National Infrastructure Strategy; providing expert advice during DCMS/UK5G workshops about the Stop 5G community; as well as joining the UK5G Skills Working Group and leading on the 5G Skills table at the UK5G Be Better Connected Conference.

My experience has been brilliant, and if you’re in the 5G sector I recommend hosting an intern. As my internship host says: “What most surprised 5G RuralDorset was the maturity of approach and willingness to try any task. The desire to learn was always evident – but the immediate ability to add value both surprised and delighted us. We would like to recommend internships to all other organisations and projects – and indeed encourage DCMS to make them integral to future collaboration activities in future projects.” – Dave Happy 5G RuralDorset Collaboration Lead

Internships range in length and focus depending on what suits you and the student; some may involve financial support, but others have external funding. Skills development for 5G is important and internships provide a great opportunity to help diversify the sector.

[1] Importantly, without access to exact data on gender make-up this does not represent self-described gender identity.

This article was originally published on the Women in 5G website.