Game of Phones

In February, the Italian government promised to ban Huawei and ZTE from the country’s 5G infrastructure, per a U.S. request. In June, Vodafone announced the launch of 5G in five Italian cities. Despite the earlier promise, those new 5G networks are Huawei-supported and built on Huawei equipment.

As of May 17, U.S. companies need official permission to do business with Huawei and its affiliates. Washington calls for American allies and partners to follow suit, arguing that Chinese equipment grants Beijing a backdoor into critical networks. But other states resist. They can manage their own security concerns. They don’t want to be forced into a new Cold War. And they do want 5G: the PRC’s prices can’t be beat; other options are limited; the U.S. does not offer an alternative.

5G is shaping up to be the next geopolitical great game, designed for a world where information rather than geography is the battlespace. However, every competitor seems to envision a different goal. South Korea, Japan, and to an extent Finland and Sweden vie for the 5G market as the conduit to direct economic advantage. For European states, 5G is yet another hurdle to maintain global relevance — and yet another front in a great power battle that reduces them to satellite status. For China, 5G is a national grand-strategic mission; part of a network-driven offensive for the China’s “national great rejuvenation.” And the U.S. has come to frame the contest as a simple question of espionage.

So What Is 5G? 

5G refers broadly to the set of rules and standards that define the fifth generation of wireless communications. This generation is projected to catalyze and undergird the long-awaited “Internet of Things” (IoT): a world where not just everyone, but also every physical object, connects and communicates constantly. The international standards body 3GPP completed the first phase of 5G specifications in 2018. It plans to establish the second set by March 2020. Telecommunications companies are rapidly implementing those standards: AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have already launched 5G in select U.S.cities. South Korea claimed a nationwide 5G network in April. China says it will commercialize 5G by 2020.

5G operates on three sets of radio frequencies — millimeter wave (24.25-29.5 GHz), mid-band (3.3-4.2 GHz), and low-band (600MHz-700MHz). Millimeter wave (or mmWave) permits multi-gigabit speeds. But higher frequencies penetrate less well and carry data less far: mmWave systems will require a new infrastructure of many, small base stations in close proximity. Slightly slower, mid-band is often called the “Goldilocks” of digital spectrum, combining high speeds and good distance penetration.

5G differentiates itself along three dimensions. First, and most obvious, are faster operating speeds. The high-resolution video that takes minutes to download today will be available in seconds with 5G. It also provides low latency: devices will communicate amongst themselves some 50 times more quickly than with 4G. Third, 5G’s capacity, or bandwidth, will be some 100 times higher than 4G LTE. That allows the network to host more human users. It also allows the network to host more machines — including the millions of devices and sensors that, linked together, will comprise IoT ecosystems.

In the short term, most consumers will only directly notice that first improvement, called enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). The change will likely be incremental at best. A video will download more quickly and with better quality. Virtual reality technologies will become more widespread and functional. But in the longer term, the second two measures — known as Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) and massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) — could revolutionize society. 3G allowed mobile devices to operate at computer-like speeds, thus launching the smartphone era. 4G’s advances opened the door to the world of mobile-first; the age of Uber, AirBNB, Spotify. And with them, the individual’s constant mobile connection to a network of other individuals.

URLLC and mMTC promise to take that one step farther: they will not just connect people to each other, but machines to machines. We talk about a burgeoning world of smart cities, self-driving cars, autonomous everything. The technologies behind many of those already exist. But they still need to be institutionalized, scaled, and integrated. That requires a network with immense bandwidth on which they can communicate seamlessly and without delay. 5G offers precisely that.

Or at least, that’s the hypothesis. The basic 5G capabilities and test sites that do exist are just the beginning. 5G is not a simple technology or a straightforward objective. Rather, it is a technological ecosystem: networks that operate on three different sets of spectrum; the infrastructures for those networks; the hardware that uses them; and all of the associated technologies — self-driving cars, smart cities, industrial robots — as well as their own infrastructures and hardware.

The true transformative power of 5G lies in the integration of those, horizontally and vertically, to scale.

That is where the real contest looms.

U.S. operators have launched more than 90 commercial 5G networks; South Korean ones more than 50. These networks, however, operate on existing 4G LTE networks rather than 5G-specific ones. That translates into evolutionary advances, chiefly in speed, without 5G’s (theoretical) revolutionary macro effects. Those networks have been established without the infrastructure investments necessary for a scalable 5G foundation. By contrast, Beijing focuses on commercializing “standalone” 5G — i.e. 5G networks operating without previous-generation hardware by 2020. Beijing has built some 350,000 5G-operable base stations over the past five years. That’s about ten times the number operating in the U.S.

The race is to build a 5G infrastructure that covers broad geographies and user bases; to build and connect the smart cities, industrial robots, and self-driving car systems that take advantage of that infrastructure’s potential. This will be expensive. And there is less direct market demand than was the case for 4G LTE. 5G deployment requires not only revamping technological architectures but also building an entirely new physical infrastructure. That’s particularly true of mmWave systems. There’s a real question as to where that money will come from — at least in the free-market system. The consumer will have little incentive to foot the bill. After all, he’ll see only marginal immediate improvements.