Smart homes are in our future, thanks to 5G – as long as the power stays on. Photo: iStock

Over the past couple of years, fifth-generation (5G) telecommunication technology has arguably emerged as one of the hottest and most anticipated innovations in the global tech industry. It has gained notoriety both for its disruptive potential and for the fierce debates surrounding its suppliers.

However, discussions about the impact of 5G often overlook one key vulnerability of this technology – its dependency on a constant supply of power. Many do not realize that a major blackout – man-made or caused by a natural disaster – could not only disrupt 5G networks, but also bring down a large chunk of the economy with it.

Going forward, 5G is set to become the game-changing successor of 4G. It promises to boost wireless network speeds by up to 100 times, expand the number of devices supported per square kilometer by more than 16 times, and cut latency by up to 30 times, compared with the current 4G network.

These technical improvements matter, a lot. In due course, they will allow 5G to form the backbone and a central nervous system of a fully interconnected society. It has even been argued that by connecting billions of machines all over the globe, 5G will make the Fourth Industrial Revolution a reality.

Practically speaking, 5G is said to be capable of unlocking the full potential of everything from self-driving cars to robots to fully interconnected smart homes. It will also aid the development of smart cities by turbocharging the development of the Internet of Things, boost manufacturing efficiency and help to accelerate the adoption of augmented and virtual reality.

It is also expected to have a number of military applications. Provided end-to-end encryption or some other method of secure communication mitigates the risk of data breaches, 5G could, among other things, be used for drones, command and control (C2), and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems.

While some healthy skepticism remains about the real-life impact of 5G in the short to medium term, considering the economics of 5G infrastructure and various regulatory constraints, there is a general consensus that 5G will likely lead to greater technological advances than its predecessors and make societies and economies more interlinked than ever before.

Yet all this comes at a security cost.

Just like its predecessors, 5G networks are reliant on a constant supply of power. However, unlike its predecessors, 5G is anticipated to play a much more important role in our daily lives. Therefore, there is a genuine risk that in the near future blackouts or power shortages could disrupt 5G networks and have perilous consequences for society at large.

In the event of a 5G network failure, the entire ecosystem of countless connected devices could collapse. Autonomous vehicles, drones and other driverless types of technology would come to a standstill, people could be locked out of their smart homes, municipal infrastructure could stop working, and some critical service providers would take a hit too. In other words, large segments of the society and the economy could come to a screeching halt – not a far cry from your favorite sci-fi apocalypse movie.

Obviously, blackouts already can and do have dire consequences. Back in August, a lightning strike in the United Kingdom sparked a cycle of cascading events, which left more than a million people in the dark, the country’s largest blackout in more than a decade.

However, as society becomes more dependent on 5G networks, the stakes of these events will rise exponentially. This is because even devices or machinery that do not rely on a continuous flow of electricity, as they have built-in power storage or generation capacity, would also go down in the event of a power outage – not directly because of the blackout itself but because they rely on 5G, which is disabled by the blackout.”

To complicate matters further still, the risk of natural and man-made disaster-caused power-grid failures is likely to increase

To complicate matters further still, the risk of natural and man-made disaster-caused power-grid failures is likely to increase.

First, evidence suggests that climate change will amplify the frequency of heatwaves, which will increase the electrical load, straining critical infrastructure and making power outages more likely.

Second, given the pace of power-grid digitization and the fact that cyberattacks provide the perpetrators with a low-cost, high-reward tactic of coercion, often without triggering accountability, the threat of cyberattack-induced blackouts will probably grow in the years to come.

In fact, in October the European Union released a coordinated risk assessment of the cybersecurity of 5G networks, which highlighted 5G’s dependency on power grids and the latter’s vulnerability to cyberattacks.

Admittedly, most grid operators in developed countries run highly advanced cybersecurity protocols and often have sufficient redundancy to withstand component failure. However, given their inherently fragile architecture, it would be irresponsible to rule out the possibility of a grid failure cascading into a 5G network collapse.

Therefore, when preparing for the onset of 5G technology, it would be wise for relevant authorities to take into consideration not only the benefits, but also the potential risks that greater interdependencies and connectivity might lead to.

To this end, the energy industry needs to double down on efforts to strengthen power grids and related infrastructure resilience. This could possibly lead to the smartening and the hardening of the grid, the beefing up of its cybersecurity, better distributing power generation, and the introduction of micro-grids.

Even if energy infrastructure mostly sits in private hands, governments can still help. They could develop critical infrastructure resilience-building strategies and other frameworks, which could spur innovation, strengthen strategic foresight and encourage cooperation between the public and private sectors and non-governmental organizations.

If 5G technology lives up to its hype, it will reshape industries and have a lasting impact on many facets of our daily lives. This means that any disruptions to the power grid and, by extension, to the 5G networks could have unforgiving consequences. Considering the stakes and the fact that 5G will soon be rolled out more widely, time might be running short to prop up our grid resilience and lay the groundwork for the future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and are contributed in a purely personal capacity.

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