Has the 5G fever any merit?
The trendiest word in technology circles is 5G, but is it even worth talking about it?. It reminds me of when 4G was the next-big-thing. I hate such hype cycles. Everyone is announcing something, but none of it translates to the market.
The truth is, infrastructure changes don’t happen in an instant but gradually. 5G won’t be any different, despite what others herald. That said, 5G has some serious strategic implications. In a nutshell, it delivers three critical improvements:
- Faster connections (10x what we have now).
- Lower latencies (Under 1ms in some cases)
- Better support for multi-device connectivity
Despite the promising new features, it will take some time for consumers to take advantage of them. It’s true that the rollout schedule is better developed than previous technologies. However, there are still significant hurdles to overcome.
On the one hand, 5G uses higher frequencies than other protocols. While speeds are better, signal coverage is drastically reduced. This means that while some urban regions will get access to 5G, it will take some time to get even 5G coverage.
Go Deeper: The limited area coverage of 5G will make high-speed, low latency connections the realm of urbanites. This will further accelerate the rural-to-urban migration trend we’re experiencing. Anyone outside of the urban sphere will have a hard time competing in the digital economy. Governments need to think long and hard about how they’ll expand 5G coverage into rural areas to prevent the exodus.
The other handicap for 5G is the lack of device support. There are but a handful of 5G phones in the market, not to mention multipurpose devices. This will change, probably in two years, but it seems we’re living through a reversal of what happened with 4G. Device makers are waiting for the infrastructure to be in place before committing to anything. Hard to blame them for being cautious.
Most of the news around 5G are marketing ploys, worthless attention grabbers that play with consumer’s expectations. Nonetheless, 5G poses some defining scenarios that interwind with dominant global trends. Some of these scenarios are worth exploring due to their lasting consequences.
5G Global Arms Race
Deployment of 5G networks is being used as a weapon in the power struggle between the US and China. Infrastructure rollout and national semiconductor development is becoming crucial for the Asian country. The trade war between both nations is, if anything, accelerating the deployment and, more importantly, research into 5G infrastructure.
Why it matters: The truth is, China has a vested interest in beating the US in the 5G war. Not only will it show they’re more capable, but it’s also well aligned with their Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Vehicle strategies. Both require multiple devices, low latency and plenty of speed.
The battle for 5G supremacy isn’t about telecommunications but over semiconductor superiority. Right now the US is relying on Qualcomm (US), Nokia (EU) and Ericsson (EU) for their 5G equipment. Meanwhile, China is pushing towards Huawei and ZTE, both Chinese companies.
It’s still to be seen in Qualcomm, or any of the European makers can rival with Huawei. The Chinese company is already delivering better chips than their competitors, and the feeling is that the gap is going to get more extensive in the future.
However, half the world has repudiated Huawei. It’s going to be interesting to see how the field evolves. If only China benefits from Huawei’s groundbreaking work, they’ll be in a unique position to dominate the world.
“For Huawei, as leader in 5G technology, we don’t have the opportunity to serve the U.S. consumer with 5G solutions and services, then the U.S. market is a market without full competition while still blocking leading players from participation. Now, I’m not sure whether they can really deliver their objective of becoming the world’s No. 1 in 5G,” he said, according to a translation that was verified by CNBC.Huawei boss: The US may not win the 5G race if it doesn’t let us back in. CNBC. Nov. 2018.
Underlying the whole conflict there is the matter of privacy. Those that control the infrastructure control the flow of information. Full 5G support will move the Chinese surveillance agenda even faster. If Huawei expands beyond China, it will allow for the expansion of such programs beyond the Asian borders.
The Big Picture: While we strive for a connected world it’s becoming clear that we’ll end up with, at least, two different Internets. I wonder what will win the day, greed or control. If China wants to pump their economy, they need to be able to sell their technology outside their borders. To achieve that, they need to demonstrate their components are safe. It wouldn’t be crazy to see Huawei opening manufacturing plants in their potential top markets like Europe or US in the future. In the meantime, Europe has cause to celebrate because both Nokia and Ericsson will eventually benefit from their investments in 5G technology.
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