The geography of 5G upgrades: Engineering, building, and maintaining the digital infrastructure of the city-to-come

Authors: Alan Wiig*, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Michele Masucci, Temple University
Topics: Urban Geography
Keywords: infrastructure, digital, telecommunications, urban
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2020
Start / End Time: 5:35 PM / 6:50 PM
Room: Century, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Visions of autonomous systems and ambitions for socio-technological upgrades are underpinned by assumptions of constant high-speed data transfer powered by next generation, 5G Internet connectivity upgrades. Upon rollout, this wired and wireless connection will facilitate: driverless vehicles, microgrids and energy optimization more generally, ever-present surveillance technologies, the massive Internet of Things (MIoT), edge computing, and a further explosion of joined devices. Advancements stack in combination with each other--along with the analytics and machine learning capabilities to come--and will create a foundation for the next era of smart/sustainable/resilient urbanization. And yet, the physicality of the systems that produce and maintain this digital backend inhabit infrastructural spaces with their own histories as well as present-day political and economic trajectories. This paper examines the landscape of cellular antenna sites that animate the city, moving from individuals’ smartphones to—and beyond—citywide ‘fogs’ and ‘clouds’. The ongoing shift to 5G offers an opportunity to consider, through investigation of the materiality of network equipment, the infrastructural politics of these systems and networks’s engineering, labour, and maintenance. We argue that the promise of advanced, digitized urbanization relies on an taken-for-granted infrastrucutral geography that remains unseen but vital to these ambitions for the city-to-come.

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