Countries and telecoms around the world are rolling out the next generation of mobile networks - and they are doing it fast.
Bulgaria is no exception. For all its problems, the country has always had a strong telecom sector. Two of the three mobile operators - BTC, operating under the Vivacom brand, and A1 Bulgaria, part of A1 Telekom Austria Group, already provide 5G services, but many customers don't even know it. For several reasons: there is a very small number of phones which can connect to the network; it doesn't work in most places; and last, but not least - it is not a "real 5G".
"Real 5G" is kind of an abstract concept, but the main point is the following: to provide the speed and capacity that they promise and hype, telecoms need frequencies, both low and high, and then some new equipment. All of this will cost billions of levs and it will become reality in the next two or three years, not now. This is the reason why the third telecom, Telenor, brushes off the bragging of the other two as a mere PR stunt.
In other words, so far the companies have been trying to create supply, but there is not much demand - neither from retail users, nor from corporate users. One reason is practical: businesses that need 5G are not a lot in Bulgaria. The other is emotional: fear from the new network is widespread as is everywhere in the world these days. The government is doing nothing to ease this fear - it doesn't have any information campaign and it has not demanded any research, so there is no official data to rely on.
We don't want it
The local governments of two municipalities - Mezdra and Balchik -have already voted against rolling out 5G. In all fairness, Mezdra municipal council's decision was nullified, but it still shows that there is very strong opposition on local level.
Telecoms and government both brush it off, because regulations on the network are valid on national level. But there is damage to be done - both to the public opinion and to the companies. Municipalities might be unable to regulate the frequency spectrum, but they can refuse permits for stationing new equipment on municipality-owned buildings. So far telecoms stay on top, because they just upgrade their old equipment, but the "one up" level might cause some delay. You can only fight the local population for so long before getting into some serious business reputation problem.
The people in the anti-5G movement vary from total deniers of coronavirus and conspiracy theorists to rather rational individuals. "I am in the middle. I am not extreme in my opinion, but there are a lot of researches which show that the technology can damage the cells in the human organism", says Marin Popov, the man who essentially made Balchik municipal council ban the 5G rollout for at least a year.
Here, there, and everywhere
The problem is the same everywhere else, along with the argument and the level of authority - cities and municipalities in Italy, Switzerland, the UK and other countries have all halted development of 5G network, on the same grounds. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Brussels - the city, not the EU - which stopped the 5G rollout, arguing that "our citizens are not guinea pigs".
It is a solid argument that has been taken all the way up to the European Parliament - again by a Bulgarian. Ivo Hristov, a MEP from S&D (and the Bulgarian Socialist Party), ordered the scientific panel STOA to do a research on 5G and human health. It has been delayed and it should be released in March, but the main conclusions are already out. And they will certainly shape the further debate.
"Researchers are united behind the thesis that wide rollout of 5G networks is a gigantic experiment which carries the risk of adverse effects on human health. There is data about non-thermic effects which can cause certain types of cancer and problems with reproductive health. At this point there is not enough data about the effects on biodiversity," the office of Hristov said in response to a query by Kapital Weekly.
The document will have a significant impact. It is in no way the end of the story, but it is however an official document commissioned by the European Parliament. The research was done by the Ramazzini Institute in Bologna and the University of Gent.
Where to now?
The European problem is that the EU does not have time for debates. The US and especially China are already ahead of the union on 5G - and pretty much everything else technological.
China is the other big problem. Many network operators in Europe, Bulgaria included, rely on Chinese technology for the 5G networks - Huawei's for example. But now, with the new frost in US-China relations, more and more European countries have decided to drop the use of Chinese hardware and software. Bulgaria is quietly considering doing the same - there are tens of millions of euro planned for renovation of mobile networks with state money in the next few years.