TechnologyTelecommunications

5G conspiracy theories fuel attacks on telecoms workers

5G conspiracies have led to a spate of attacks on telecoms engineers since the start of the coronavirus crisis, with Openreach reporting almost 50 incidents of abuse in April.

Engineers at the infrastructure company, which does not work directly on the 5G network, have been assaulted, spat on, and forced to flee groups of angry people because of baseless fears that the new mobile phone standard poses a risk to health and is linked to the coronavirus.

“We’re well equipped to deal with difficult customers,” Michael D, an Openreach engineer in north London, told the Guardian. “But since Covid, we haven’t experienced abuse like this before. Colleagues are leaving for work, thinking in the back of their mind, ‘Is it going to be a safe day today?’”

Openreach mostly deals with the UK’s wired infrastructure, laying and upgrading fibre connections, but that hasn’t stopped the company’s engineers from being attacked over 5G. Some simply draw the wrong conclusions from seeing people in hi-vis vests working on telephone cabinets, but others make more specific allegations. One woman blockaded a van, accusing the engineer of driving a mobile 5G tower; in fact, the van had a storage rack on the roof.

In one week in early April, Michael was abused three separate times, he says, culminating in a physically threatening verbal tirade from a man who coated his face in spittle. Michael subsequently had to self-isolate for two weeks with Covid-19 symptoms.

“It’s been really baffling, confusing, frustrating,” he said. “All you want to do is just connect people, make sure their loved ones are safe. You just want to explain this isn’t what we’re doing.”

Another Openreach engineer, Naveed Q, said he had to flee from a group of 15 people shouting abuse at him; one had accused him of installing 5G equipment in Walthamstow, east London. In Leicester, a man tried to open the door of an Openreach van stopped at a roundabout, according to Dylan F, an apprentice network engineer at the company, while shouting: “Who do you think you are? 5G is killing us all!”

Similar examples have been reported from all over the country, with the belief that 5G is dangerous cited in almost every example.

“As the UK’s largest broadband network provider, we’ve seen a rise in incidents across Openreach where our engineers have faced verbal and physical abuse,” a company spokesman told the Guardian, “partly driven by bogus conspiracy theories surrounding 5G and the coronavirus.”

As well as threats of violence against telecoms workers, the widespread belief that 5G is dangerous has also led to attacks on infrastructure. In just one weekend in early May, at least 20 mobile phone masts across the UK are believed to have been torched or otherwise vandalised. Many did not even contain any 5G infrastructure, but were hosting conventional 4G technology, including the UK’s Emergency Services Network, the 4G-based system that powers radios for the police, ambulance services and fire brigade.

There is no plausible link at all between 5G and the coronavirus, and the wider safety of the new technology was reconfirmed in March when the international watchdog responsible for setting limits on mobile phone signals issued updated guidelines for use of the standard.