Skip to Content

Data Sheet—The Wireless Industry’s Real 5G Challenge

This is the web version of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.

The debate about the next generation of wireless networks, known as 5G, usually focuses on when the technology will be ready and whether the super fast service might create new business use cases. There’s a lot less attention on some of the challenges of building out the kind of infrastructure that will be needed for 5G. Aaron in for Adam this morning with my municipal government hat on, thinking there may be some bumps in the road ahead.

Over the past year, there have been two big controversies in the typical Boston suburban town where I live. One involved residents concerned about new high-voltage power lines that would run underground (to reduce weather related outages) past many homes and some schools. The other was a conflagration over a plan by the town to install several powerful radio transmitters and antennas to eliminate dead spots in the police department’s communications network. Both projects have been delayed due to the public outcry.

In both cases, the residents most serious concerns were over the potential health threats of electromagnetic transmissions, a subject I somewhat naïvely thought had been well settled years ago. But this being the Boston suburbs, some of the residents up in arms were top notch medical professionals with considerable facts in hand about the possible risks. For example, two large studies that came out earlier this year found that the kind of non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell phone networks caused heightened cancer risks in laboratory animals. On the other hand, the National Cancer Institute says it has seen no increase in brain cancer in the decade or more since cell phone usage skyrocketed and the Food and Drug Administration still concludes that there is no connection to “adverse health outcomes.” On the other other hand, health officials in England said just last month that they have seen the feared jump in brain cancer rates.

That brings me back to 5G. Because the spectrum bands being used by carriers like Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile for 5G are much higher frequencies than those used for older networks, the signals don’t travel as far. That means the carriers will have to place tens of thousands of radio transmitters called small cells all over densely populated areas. And that could generate considerable pushback. The Center for Public Integrity, an award-winning, nonpartisan investigative journalism group, has cataloged some early battles that have already broken out between carriers and local residents and written about growing health concerns. The Federal Communications Commission is trying to clear the way for the carriers, creating a small cell advisory group to suggest ways for “removing state and local regulatory barriers.” The question for the industry is whether the public opposition will mobilize to slow things down.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Deeper down the rabbit hole. I’m getting that “Uber in 2017” feeling about Facebook—you know the one where every week, or almost every day, there’s some new blemish or scandal or controversy. After news broke that Washington’s attorney general was suing Facebook and Google for violating political ad disclosure laws, the social network admitted on Tuesday that its data sharing program with smartphone makers included China’s Huawei, Lenovo, Oppo, and TCL. That could draw further scrutiny, as some in Washington, D.C. have already identified Huawei as a potential national security risk.

Climbing out of a hole. Speaking of controversial Chinese phonemakers, ZTE has struck a deal to allow it to continue buying components from U.S. companies like Qualcomm, Reuters reports. ZTE will pay a total fine of $1.7 billion for actions relating to violating the Iran embargo instead of being barred from using U.S. suppliers.

Punching a hole. A day after Intel announced some crazy fast new chips, competitor Advanced Micro Devices unveiled updates across its entire CPU and GPU lines. At the top of the food chain may be AMD’s 32-core updated Threadripper 2 processor for gamers or creative workers with very demanding apps.

What the world needs now. At its annual shareholder meeting, Tesla revealed that it would have positive cash flow in the second half of 2018 and wouldn’t need to raise any more money from stock or bondholders. CEO Elon Musk was on the verge of tears when he spoke about the production delays that have hit the company’s Model 3 sedan. “At a lot of other companies, they’re built by marketing or the finance department and there’s no soul,” Musk said. “We’re not perfect, but we pour our heart and soul into it and we really care.”

Not sure it’s what the world needs now. Speaking of electric-power transportation, Uber is expanding its Jump electric bike rental service to Europe, with the bright red cycles coming to Berlin this summer. And electric scooter startup Lime is raising another $250 million of venture capital to fuel its expansion, but not more funds with debt, Axios reported.

Definitely not what the world needs now. The latest thefts of personal data hit Eventbright’s Ticketfly service and Israeli genealogy firm MyHeritage. At Ticketfly, names, addresses, emails, and phone numbers of 26 million customers were stolen by a hacker and leaked on the Internet. The company says passwords and credit card data weren’t leaked, but the hacker has threatened to release more info if ransom demands aren’t met. At MyHeritage, email addresses and passwords of 92 million users were found on the internet. No sign that much more sensitive DNA-related information was leaked.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

How long before a personal robot can cook you dinner, mow the lawn, or maybe lasso some bad guys, Westworld style? It still seems like science fiction. But longtime developer Tim Enwall, CEO of robotics startup Misty Robotics, writes that the whole situation reminds him of how would-be software programmers were stymied by the mainframe computers of the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t until personal computers came along that a wave of creative and useful programs took off. The same is true for robotics now, he says:

Because as sure as I’m sitting here, these robots are being developed in China, in Israel, and in the United States. We’re at the cusp of the emergence of actual general-purpose, easy to program, consumer-priced robots that do almost everything (sadly, hands/grippers are still ridiculously expensive)…

Once these developers are empowered with a robot that’s general purpose, affordable, and easily programmable they will shock the world. They’ll invent tens, hundreds, thousands, and eventually millions of uses for robots in the office and the home. Then, finally, we’ll reach 1981 again (circa 2022), when the modern equivalent of IBM enters the personal robot market and “validates” an ecosystem that will already be thriving with millions of robots performing a vast array of useful and creative skills.

And those early robot developers will tell their grandchildren “look at how I changed the world.” Just like their micro and mainframe compatriots do now.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Space Station, Gently Used: NASA Wants Private Companies to Take Over the International Space Hub By David Meyer

Couple at Center of $1.2 Million Amazon Scam Gets Nearly 6 Years in Prison By Don Reisinger

Apple Is Opening Health Records API to Developers By Sarah Gray

Bill Gates Is Giving All 2018 College Grads His New Favorite Book—For Free By Natasha Bach

Founders Fund Partner Talks Privacy, Facebook, and His Time at Peter Thiel’s Secretive Data Company By Polina Marinova

Facebook Wants to Help You Karaoke With Friends By Monica Rodriguez

Why It’s So Hard for Innovative Smartphone Makers to Succeed By Aaron Pressman

BEFORE YOU GO

Excited to see the all-star cast of actresses led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett talking tough and stealing stuff in the upcoming Ocean’s 8 movie? The trailer looked amazing, but Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson warns that the full work “is good, but it could have been great.” Sound fine for a summer popcorn flick to me.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.