Consumers divided globally on whether to trade 5G speeds for privacy

By John Hendel

Consumers worldwide appear to have one big fear about the coming technological revolution in super-fast wireless: 5G could be a harbinger of hacking and greater loss of privacy.

But according to a new POLITICO/Qualcomm 5G Global Survey of people in the U.S. and 10 other countries across Europe, Asia and South America, a global divide exists on how willing people are to accept a lessening of privacy in return for a new era of super-fast networks and interconnected devices. And they differ sharply in whether they place greater trust in business or government to address the problem.

In the U.S., only 21 percent of consumers surveyed would accept lower privacy standards in exchange for super-fast speeds, which under 5G are expected to be up to 100 times faster than current speeds.

But consumers in China, India and Brazil expressed much greater willingness to make such a trade-off, a sentiment expressed by 64 percent in the first two countries and 61 percent in Brazil.

That split could portend serious differences internationally about what privacy guardrails to erect in the era of 5G, and a possible splintering across national lines regarding advertising policies and the ways in which these networks are monetized.

More than half the surveyed population, averaged globally, expressed fears that 5G could make more personal data vulnerable to hacking. Sixty percent in the U.S. reported that worry.

The POLITICO/Qualcomm 5G Global Survey questioned 7,711 people around the globe on the evolving attitudes, hopes, expectations and fears associated with 5G. It also surveyed a separate mix of 1,375 IT-savvy individuals who are plugged into tech-related decision-making.

The firm PSB Research conducted the inquiry from Dec. 17 to Jan. 14, speaking to individuals from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brazil. The results on consumers' attitudes have a margin of error of plus or minus 1.1 percentage points for the global population, and 3.7 percentage points for any individual country.

The results show widespread expectations among worldwide consumers that 5G will change their lives — in ways both good and bad.

They also suggested a global rift over how much consumers trust corporations to safeguard their personal data. Only 7 percent of U.S. consumers said they have a great deal of trust that companies will be good stewards of their prized personal information — a finding that comes after years of revelations about controversies like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal and massive breaches of financial titans like Equifax.

In China, by contrast, 38 percent expressed that kind of faith in corporations — as did 65 percent in India.

On the other hand, U.S., Japanese and Brazilian consumers said they trust corporations more than the government to safeguard their privacy, the survey found. Seventy percent of Chinese respondents would rather trust the government.

These preferences may help animate what 5G looks like as it begins to roll out in earnest in the coming years, and the fears are already manifesting themselves in fights about policy. Those include the White House’s international campaign to get other nations to exclude Chinese telecom giants like Huawei from their 5G networks, amid warnings that the companies’ involvement could enable spying by China’s communist government.

Countries around the world are rushing to build out their next-generation networks. Many hope 5G will bring a mix of economic benefits from the widespread adoption of driverless cars, new forms of telehealth, more powerful artificial intelligence and machine learning applications and an ecosystem of internet-connected devices, from fridges to toasters.

“I think we’re far advanced, much further than people understand,” President Donald Trump contended last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, amid a gathering of some of the world’s top political and industry leaders. “We got off to a very late start before I got here. But once I got here, we’ve really caught up.”

The survey also explored broader 5G anxieties such as the potential for job loss and how these advances are rolled out.

Among IT-savvy specialists, U.S. respondents strongly favored the private sector taking the lead in 5G rollout. American consumers had more mixed views, with a plurality of 41 percent agreeing that “the national government should work with industry to develop and define 5G strategy and implementation.”

The American public also still isn’t sold on the idea that rural communities will enjoy advanced 5G wireless service even remotely as soon as bigger cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco: 39 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed said 5G is expected to increase the rift between urban and rural residents, a long-running, bipartisan concern known among policymakers as the digital divide. So did 51 percent of tech decision-makers in the U.S.

Greater optimism reigned in China, where 54 percent of consumers said they believe that 5G will cause the divide to decrease. That number rises to 57 percent among Chinese IT specialists.