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In 5 years, the volume of data consumed by the French has multiplied by 10, driven by streaming.

DIGITAL – Innovative vs. Amish. A few months before the deployment of 5G in France, the fifth generation of mobile networks continues to divide policies. On the one hand, the environmental left criticizes the executive for a forced passage, like Julien Bayou, national secretary of Europe Ecology the Greens (EE-LV), for whom 5G is “extremely energy intensive”. The other, industrialists, innovators and government praise the energy gain enabled by a technology that will carry more data, faster.

So, is 5G more or less energy intensive than 4G? The debate is, in fact, much more complicated than that. In absolute terms, 5G antennas consume around three to four times less than 4G antennas according to a press release from Orange and a report of the French association The Shift Project, which campaigns for a reduction in fossil fuels. Improving energy efficiency “will rely on smart antennas, explained the National Frequency Agency (ANFR), to direct the radio signal only to users when they need it instead of being emitted in all directions consistently. ”

Mobile data multiplied by 10

But the problem is that these energy savings risk being canceled out by the explosion in digital uses. “It has been estimated that improving energy efficiency will not be enough, in the long term, to counterbalance the increase in traffic, argues the Regulatory Authority for electronic communications, postal services and press distribution ( Arcep) in a digital carbon footprint report. Better efficiency leads to increased use of the product: this is the famous rebound effect.

“It makes sense, we will use less electricity, to transport 10 times more”, explains Frédéric Bordage, representative of digital experts Green IT at HuffPost. We build ever larger pipes, they have to be filled well. The latest innovations have made it possible for people to listen to music on YouTube or watch high definition videos on their cellphones ”. In the past five years, the volume of mobile data consumed by the French has also increased tenfold, boosted by video streaming, according to a report from Arcep.

For example, when it started in 2006, the Blablacar carpooling platform was seen as a positive solution to reduce its ecological footprint. But in practice, travel is cheaper, which pushes the French to make journeys that they would not have taken otherwise, thus generating more greenhouse gases. “With these new flows, we are at 95% of what we would have spent without the new service”, explains Françoise Berthoud, engineer at CNRS and Founder of Ecoinfo.

He noted: “While 5G technology is designed, of course to consume less when there is less traffic, it is also designed to integrate the rebound effect”. Moreover, it is on this paradox that the political confrontation between “Amish” and “innovators” relates.

The first direct rebound effect is linked to the fall in equipment costs. When you reduce the energy intensity of a service, its cost goes down, and the savings make it possible to consume more of the same service. “All operators will make offers to their customers so that they can equip themselves with 5G smartphones,” says Frédéric Bordage. Phones are artificially made obsolete, causing the French to throw it away. It’s a garbage effect … “

Consequence: this will generate the manufacture of new electronic equipment in large quantities. And this while the production of digital equipment is now responsible for 40% of the carbon footprint of digital according to The Shift Project. “The French are going to have plans of 100 gigas instead of 20, which will push them to play video games with extreme qualities, much more frequently. We develop totally unnecessary and very specific uses in an unreasonable way ”, condemns Frédéric Bordage.

Can we escape the rebound effect?

Another rebound effect that will affect 5G, more indirect this time: financial savings. The consumer will have more resources, because the product will be cheaper, but will spend more on travel, for example, thus generating greenhouse gases. Finally, the progress made possible by 5G will lead to an acceleration of flows and growth. Advocates of 5G highlight in particular potential advances in the field of health, with the possibility of operating remotely. “If we operate in the ambulance, the whole system is accelerated and we thus produce a lot more,” points out Françoise Berthoud. 5G is so symptomatic of the way all technology is taken to extremes that it becomes a caricature. ”

But, if 5G impacts the entire system, can we escape it? Yes, answers Frédéric Carbone, through several small gestures. “You have to use wifi as much as possible, keep your old phone, watch videos in low resolution…” Françoise Berthoud shows herself to be less optimistic: “To avoid the rebound effect in digital, it’s all her mode of life that must be reviewed. ”

See also on the HuffPost: In England, cows are testing 5G