TPG chief operating executive Craig Levy has told the Federal Court that the telco pulled its plans to roll out a 5G network in Australia due to community fears regarding the health impact of the technology.
Those fears have spiked despite bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) stating there should be no risks to public health. In fact, 5G radiation should actually be safer than previous networks, according to research by Cornell University.
Despite the science however, a small segment of the community appears concerned over the technology, as the number of social media groups spreading disinformation grow, galvanising opposition to the network.
Australia has an unfortunate and chequered history of politics scuppering its national technology infrastructure.
The National Broadband Network (NBN) was kneecapped by a change of federal government and policy and has been a veritable trainwreck ever since.
In 2018, fears of Chinese espionage dashed Huawei's bid to help roll out the 5G network here. Now TPG is having to explain why it scrapped its own 5G aspirations and it appears its hand was forced – at least in part – by fears from the community about health impacts of the technology.
"If people have concerns about the impact on their health... they are not just looking at our model in a positive manner," chief operating executive Craig Levy told the Federal Court on Tuesday, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald.
TPG is in court fighting its blocked attempt by the ACCC to merge with Vodafone, and inadvertently, the case rests on whether or not TPG would build the important infrastructure without a merger going forward. The telco has flatly claimed it wouldn't, so far citing a lack of commercial viability, and now community opposition.
"You don't think there is any scientific rationale for this do you?" ACCC counsel Michael Hodge QC then asked Levy.
Levy responded that while it was "not his area of expertise...the equipment that we were using was well within the standard and it is very much acceptable in terms of the standards".
Hodge then asked if "there was some segment of the community that held an irrational concern about the effects" of the small cells used in a 5G network.
"I wouldn’t call it irrational. I think people have rational concerns," Levy responded.
Rational – but perhaps a little unscientific.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated "there should be no consequences for public health", while research from Cornell University shows the higher radio frequencies used by 5G networks are actually safer because they are less able to penetrate human skin.
That science appears to have done little to allay fears in some sections of the community, however.
Levy claimed that even the then-telecommunications minister Mitch Fifield wrote to TPG warning that community members had come to him with concerns, while A Current Affair segment had also helped galvanise opposition to 5G.
It's not the only one.
Russian state media outlet RT (formerly known as Russia Today) ran a segment titled '5G Wireless: A Dangerous Experiment on Humanity', has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube and claims that the technology's wireless radiation "can cause DNA damage, neuropsychiatric effects and other health problems".
America's Fox News ran a similar segment with host Tucker Carlson asking 'are 5G networks medically safe?'
Vision from both segments and other disinformation have helped spawn an online campaign against the 5G network. Worldwide, there are hundreds of these groups, according to online monitor the Global Disinformation Index (GDI) which identified that in the last few months alone, the activity and membership of these groups have swelled.
"As the blast radius of the payload expanded with every additional media mention, a loosely-organised social media network supporting the ‘Stop 5G’ narrative used it as daily algorithmic cannon fodder across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram," a recent GDI report said.
"Pages were created by groups and users in Australia, Denmark, UK, New Zealand, Scotland, Malta, Italy, Canada, Poland, Ireland, and the United States, among others."
Activity exploded on the 124 Facebook pages monitored by GDI in May after strong media coverage. In a single week, the number of new weekly posts climbed from around 200 to over 1000.
Certainly, in Australia there are now dozens of Facebook groups boasting thousands of active members protesting 5G's rollout in Australia. 'Stop5G Australia' has almost 6,000 members for example, while more specific areas like Adelaide and New South Wales' Mid North Coast and Northern Rivers each have their own following.
The growth of such groups has helped spread fears about 5G technology, with much smaller turnouts gathering offline for 'information' nights.
While TPG has listed several reasons for pulling the plug on its new network, it has now testified that those health fears were a major factor.
If that online momentum continues, it may not be the last to be stopped in its tracks by such groups.