Covid 19 mobile phone mast madness must stop, says CWU

Telecoms & Financial Services, Openreach

The CWU has thrown its weight behind the amplifying chorus of protest against the Covid 19 ‘fake news’ which has resulted in instances of mobile phone masts being vandalised and some telecoms engineers being subject to abuse by members of the public.

With reports of some of the union’s field engineering members having been verbally abused as a result of an absurd conspiracy theory doing the rounds that 5G networks are somehow responsible for the spread of coronavirus, the union has commended the swift action taken by major social media networks to quash a groundless rumour that risks actual damage to the national communications infrastructure just when it is needed most.

The lunacy began after the live streaming and widespread sharing of a video by conspiracy David Icke in which he linked 5G technology to the pandemic.

Amid consternation from Ofcom, which pointed out that vandalism of phone masts affects 3G and 4G services as well as 5G, “meaning that people can’t call the emergency services or contact their families”, a number of key social media platforms have accepted that they have a role to play in limiting the fallout. These include YouTube which has banned the uploading of content perpetuating the falsehood, as well as taking down the videos that spread the misinformation in the first place.

Yesterday, newly appointed Shadow Culture Secretary Jo Stevens welcomed moves by digital messaging platform WhatsApp to limit the spread of Covid-19 fake news.

Ms Stevens, who was appointed to her new post on Monday by new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, voiced support for WhatsApp’s decision to impose a new limit on the forwarding of messages. If a message has been forwarded more than five times, under the new restrictions the recipient is only able to send it on to a single chat at a time.

Writing on Twitter, Ms Stevens described WhatsApp’s decision as an “encouraging step to help prevent dangerous disinformation spreading about #COVID19. We’ve seen the impact it has had this week with criminal damage to 5G masts on basis of false claims.”

Welcoming the swift response by the regulator and politicians that effectively gave social media companies no option but to act decisively, CWU deputy general secretary Andy Kerr said: “It really does defy belief that, in this day and age, a groundless and obviously stupid conspiracy theory can trigger a hue and cry that results in ill-informed and frankly idiotic individuals taking ridiculous actions that have the potential to disrupt crucial information flows at time of national crisis.

“Mercifully it would seem that the damage caused was not widespread – but, for the sakes of all our field engineering members in Openreach and across the wider telecommunications sector, it’s vitally important that dangerous fake news of this type is well and truly quashed.”

  • The 5G/ Covid 19 farce comes just days after very real challenges standing in the way of  genuine social and economic benefits that would stem from a truly universal rollout of 5G technology and high speed broadband were set out by the CWU in a detailed submission to a Parliamentary select committee.

Responding to the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s ‘Broadband and the Road to 5G Inquiry’ the union restated its long-held view that “the UK’s universal broadband network is a natural monopoly given the high barriers to market entry, particularly in harder to serve areas.”

Stressing that Ministers’ acceptance of that unavoidable fact would be “significantly cheaper than the Government’s proposed competition model because network duplication would be avoided and cross-subsidisation would help fund 100% coverage”, the union highlighted the danger of ‘cherry picking’ by rival operators concentrating on profitable areas.

Quoting from an open letter sent to Ofcom last year by politicians in 20 northern towns who have seen for themselves the perverse outcomes that result when there is a lack of co-ordination in deploying FTTP networks, the CWU’s submission reiterated the nub of the problem.

Pointing out that many of the rival operators which are building their own networks are investing in exactly the same locations – with locations such as Manchester, Bristol , Coventry and Cambridge already lined up to become particularly over-served – the conclusion is stark: “We are seeing the needless duplication of full-fibre networks,  while short distances away other towns and cities with no planned investment risk being left behind.”

  • See the CWU’s full submission here