More than a decade ago, a small device appeared on the market and turned everything on its head. The iPhone: it had no keypad. Anyone could operate it – and everyone wanted it. But it would all have come to nothing without mobile telephony – third generation 3G at that time.

With the triumph of smartphones, the appetite for data also grew. In 2012, the fourth generation (4G) of mobile telephony brought a huge increase in bandwidths, prompting a breakthrough in streaming and social media. The launch of 4G went smoothly, and everyone experienced the benefits at first hand on their own devices. Today, an entire generation only knows what life was like ‘before’ from hearsay.

1. Chapter 1: A pride not shared by all

2019 then saw the arrival of the current 5G generation – an evolution of the fourth generation featuring extensive software updates and enhanced hardware. The industry assumed that this development would once again be welcomed with open arms and that we as a nation would be proud of it: the first devices, the first networks, which existed only in Switzerland. How mistaken they were. There was widespread outrage. People took to the streets and launched political campaigns. No one had expected such a strong reaction. There was little logic behind it; the facts spoke – and still speak – in favour of a 5G expansion.

However, the telecommunications industry also bore a share of the blame for the debacle, inundating the public with fantasised visions of the future, which served only to put them off. The sector advertised the technologies rather than the benefits of the new capabilities or reduced emissions as a result of more advanced antennae. The inevitable happened: the damage was done. 

2. Chapter 2: A lack of guidelines leads to uncertainty

And things were to deteriorate even further. Now the latest generation had arrived, for two years there was no guidance on how to deal with the advanced functionalities or new hardware (such as adaptive antennae). The administration was partly in a vacuum. Others found that the lack of specifications justified halting the advance of 5G.

The result was that uncertainty grew among the population and the absence of clear specifications bred speculation and allegations. 5G, it was claimed, was harmful to health and was also being introduced through the back door. Rather than trust, a feeling of powerlessness prevailed.

Once made, such allegations are difficult to refute. They have long since become supposedly everyday knowledge, even a matter of faith, in certain quarters. Where facts are pitted against belief, facts fare badly. Even today, statements can still be found in council votes that do not stand up to fact checking.

3. Chapter 3: Planned liberation

The act of liberation was expected to succeed at the beginning of 2021: with clear specifications that people had been waiting for since the frequency allocation in early 2019. Sadly, this did not bring the long-awaited clarity and instead prompted even more questions. Two legal reports were subsequently drawn up, one commissioned by the Conference of Cantonal Construction Directors and the other by the mobile phone industry. Due to divergent interpretations, the simplified procedures for the maintenance of the network were then suspended in almost all cantons. Yet standard permit applications are also piling up. According to the industry association, there were more than 3,100 building applications pending in June 2022.

In the meantime, the Confederation specified the assistance it would grant. Part of this was adopted at ordinance level in the second half of 2022. For one thing is also clear: twenty-year-old definitions can no longer keep pace with the rapid development of mobile telephony. 

4. Chapter 4: The way out

In typically Swiss manner, a compromise was sought. The Conference of Building Directors (BPUK) has proposed two recommendations to the cantons on the simplified procedures. One recommendation simplifies maintenance of the network (preserving the infrastructure), the other simplifies the further development of the networks. The application of the two recommendations is more or less balanced throughout the cantons. It is clear that simply preserving the infrastructure will not be an option for the future. 

While operators and politicians try to find a way out of the impasse into which they have manoeuvred themselves, the population continues using mobile telephony services more than ever. Today, more than a third of devices are equipped for the latest mobile generation, and almost 8 million SIM cards would allow 5G use. 

5. Chapter 5: What is at stake

In many places, the mobile phone debate has become increasingly bogged down in the minutiae. In the process, people in many places have lost sight of the bigger picture. A great deal of time has been lost during the expansion process. The sticking point is that even if everything were to be approved overnight, the specialised construction crews would have to be ramped up again and materials and tools would have to be procured. For the time being, everything is working. But network reserves are dwindling. The consequences of the blockades are yet to be seen. Yet how can you explain to someone that the shelves will soon be empty when they are currently full to bursting? 

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