Demystifying 5G by Sophie Xi C'21

2019 has marked the great transition to fifth-generation cellular networks, also known as 5G. Once completed, it will be a once-in-a-decade upgrade to a wireless system that not only will allow for faster smartphones, but also for big changes in many other industries, such as industrial robotics, security cameras, drones, and autonomous vehicles. Moreover, as a point of contention in the heated trade talks between the US and China, 5G adoption is more than just about technology—it also raises strategic international concerns.

By sending billions of bits of data per second, 5G offers internet speeds that will allow mobile users to download movies within seconds, autonomous cars to exchange data at lightning speed, and doctors to conduct remote surgery. Overall, 5G impacts a wide range of fields that rely on high-speed connections by significantly reduces latency times.

The median speed of 5G networks is approximately 20 times faster than 4G. This new technology revamps the technical foundations of cellular networks and greatly modifies the process of handling and exchanging data. But it’s not all about speed; 5G technology preludes a series of changes in many other domains.

Technology companies such as wireless chip maker Qualcomm, microchip giant Intel, and one of China’s biggest tech companies, Huawei, are battling for the yoke of 5G technology and standards. The 5G market hasn't ripened yet, which leaves plenty of opportunities for companies to explore. During the world’s largest wireless trade show, the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, wireless service providers such as AT&T and Verizon both announced forthcoming mobile software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) offerings for 5G, which will simplify and streamline the implementation of wide-area networks for businesses and individuals alike.

5G represents disruptive changes in the field of device-making as well. Samsung showcased prototypes of 5G smartphones that can operate using both AT&T and Verizon networks, leading other mobile manufacturers to follow suit. However, Apple is not expected to incorporate the new technology until 2020.

Countries are vying for 5G development because they believe acquiring next-level cellular networks will deliver a first-mover, strategic advantage. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, Finland’s Nokia, and several companies in Japan have stepped up to participate in the national competition for 5G.

The US has launched a global campaign preventing Huawei and other Chinese firms from developing 5G networks in fear of China’s increasing technological advantages. Last year, the US government intervened in Broadcom’s $117 billion bid to acquire Qualcomm. A Broadcom spokesman has stated that the merging of forces with the US “will provide far more resources for investments and development to that end.” Vice President Mike Pence demanded that European countries ban Chinese telecommunications technologies and said, “we cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.” The US’s security concern is that Chinese companies such as Huawei could collaborate with Chinese intelligence agencies and impinge on individuals’ privacy, among others.

Despite the backlash from the US, Huawei has witnessed a surge in sales in Europe where it has made a leading contribution to developing 5G technical standards. Holding 10% of the patents related to 5G networks, Huawei has a relatively long history in developing 5G--since 2009. At last year's MWC, the company successfully demonstrated building the first cellular base station with the new 3GPP specifications.

Starting in late 2019 or sometime in 2020, consumers will have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of 5G through upgrade programs offered by wireless carriers including AT&T, Verizon, Spring, and T-Mobile. However, a settlement on the 5G battle between the US and China might take its time as both parties continue to resist compromise.