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First 5G networks go live in France despite health, environment concerns

This file illustration from February 2019 shows the 5G wireless technology logo displayed on a tablet in Paris.
This file illustration from February 2019 shows the 5G wireless technology logo displayed on a tablet in Paris. AFP - LIONEL BONAVENTURE

The next generation of mobile networks has gone online for the first time in France, despite initial access being limited. Heads of telecoms providers expect it will take time before 5G technology becomes mainstream but warned officials not to waste any time in setting up infrastructure.


The 5G logo will begin to appear on the screens of smartphones in many parts of France with the activation of frequencies on Wednesday, at least for the few who have signed up to a limited offer of plans.

The newest mobile technology is only available in areas where operators have set up some 500 antennae used in test phases, all of them concentrated around nine cities including Paris, Marseille and Lyon.

Telecoms providers have put forward nearly 3 billion euros to obtain frequencies, even if they did not expect a rapid adoption of the networks.

The sales of 5G plans will “not attain great numbers this winter”, telecom operator Orange’s CEO Stéphane Richard said in early November. “It’s a topic for 2021, especially in the second half,” when the network expands, he said.

“Customers who sign up to 5G today will be mainly the most technophile,” said Sylvain Chevallier, telecoms associate at consultancy BearingPoint. “In a year, when the network is rolled out at the national level, it will be your average Jill and average Joe.”

As per regulations, each operator must set up 3,000 transmission towers by 2022, expand to 8,000 in 2024 and attain 10,500 in 2025.

Only large providers Orange and Bouygues currently have 5G plans on the market. Another telecoms giant, Free, said it planned to follow suit in the coming weeks.

France urged to be competitive

France’s government has been keen to pursue the technology in the interest of remaining competitive, President Emmanuel Macron memorably dismissing detractors of 5G as preferring the “Amish model” at a tech fair in September.

The new technology has come with some worries over health and environmental consequences of electromagnetic waves.

Some left-wing and Green party mayors have called for a moratorium on the new technology until the publication of a regulator’s review in Spring 2021, but the head of Free urged public officials to waste no time in rolling out the required infrastructure.

“It would be a shame for France to have the best land network, with the best fibre optic network in Europe, and to be the last in mobile networks by refusing the 5G market,” Xavier Niel, CEO of Free’s holding company, told MPs on Tuesday.

“It’s also an image or perception of France abroad that could cause us to lose our competitive edge,” Niel said.

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