Massive machine-type communications will aid in the development of the “internet of things,” the network of interconnected devices embedded in everyday objects that share data, as well as smart devices, sensors and industrial equipment that uses the mobile network. Many of these devices do not require ultra-low latency (the amount of time it takes to send a message through the system and for the receiving machine to follow instructions), since a sensor might only send data every hour. However, the 5G network will improve the functions of such devices, especially if many of them are located close to each other physically.
Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications will form the backbone of new applications. The goal of 5G networks will be to increase reliability and reduce latency to less than 1 millisecond, which is far more rapid than the comparatively sluggish figure of 25 milliseconds – even in ideal conditions – for existing 4G technology. Accordingly, ultra-reliable connections could become instrumental for “mission critical” applications due to the effective elimination of any element of risk. Low-latency connections will lead to the greater usage of self-driving cars, as well as the tactile internet, which will enable people to control objects remotely as never before. The tactile internet, for instance, could soon allow surgeons to perform operations from thousands of miles away in real-time.
On a wider scale, 5G networks will hold together many of the technological innovations that will define the world in the decade to come, including the internet of things, outdoor autonomous robots for agriculture and industry, the smart utility grid, and autonomous vehicles and drones. And with the significance of 5G far outweighing that of any of its predecessors, nation-states are taking notice as they race to roll out their own networks to establish a first-mover advantage.
Unsurprisingly on account of its internal imperatives and grand strategy, China has made 5G a central plank of its overall industrial plans, including Made in China 2025 and its 13th Five-Year Plan, amid its desire to commercially deploy 5G technologies by 2020. Several Chinese companies have taken a leadership role in developing some of the technologies – a development that has not escaped Washington’s attention.
Beijing has opted for an international approach to development and deployment of 5G. China has assumed a pioneering role in various international organizations that are developing the standards to underpin 5G technology, such as the 3rd Generation Partnership Project – the organization that facilitates collaboration by industry participants on telecommunications standards – and the International Telecommunication Union. Carriers whose operations are restricted to a handful of countries often operate the world’s current mobile telecommunications networks, unlike the basic equipment that is central to the telecommunications industry. Radio access network technologies, such as antenna base stations, core chipsets and mobile handset/smartphone devices, are produced in a globalized market, ensuring a high degree of standardization and interoperability on a worldwide level.
Previously, China attempted to develop its own indigenous standards for technology, especially 3G, even though it was not a market leader – producing scant success. China tried to force a global standard upon 3G mobile networks, but its proposed parameters failed to catch on even in at home, let alone globally. In the end, 3G technology did not arrive in that country until six years after it had commercially emerged around the globe. Accordingly, China remained largely dependent on foreign intellectual property. In rolling out standards for 4G, China played a more active role, although it trailed well behind its Western peers in terms of base technology.
This time, Beijing appears to have learned from the past. China is hoping to lead from the outset on 5G by helping set standards that are better-suited to Beijing’s desires for the network, thereby allowing it to leap ahead of its many global competitors. China could push for parameters that emphasize the industrial applications of massive machine communications and ultra-reliable low-latency communications over the media applications of enhanced mobile broadband, which means focusing less on the millimeter wave band – part of the spectrum above 24 gigahertz – and more on a system called Massive Multiple In Multiple Out, under which there could be hundreds of antennas and receivers operating from the same base station, instead of the current two to four antennas.
Top Five Telecommunications Equipment Vendors in 5G Trials
China is already a leader in antenna and base station architecture with Huawei and ZTE, whose only global competitors are South Korea’s Samsung, Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. Although the Scandinavian equipment vendors have a small lead when it comes to memorandums of understanding on 5G and pilot tests with global carriers, Huawei surpassed Ericsson in 2016 to become the world’s biggest producer in mobile equipment, gaining a global market share of roughly 30 percent.
Wariness in Washington
Huawei has provoked particular concern in Washington due to its leadership in 5G trials and its status as a leading radio access network vendor. Since 2012, U.S. politicians have expressed worries about using ZTE and Huawei equipment on U.S. networks out of concerns about the potential security risk. As a result, a de facto ban on Huawei and ZTE’s equipment in the United States could become more permanent in the country amid growing U.S. nationalism that seeks to close the door to Chinese technology – even though the two companies have inked global partnerships and business deals in Canada, Japan and Europe for 5G. The White House has even reportedly considered nationalizing the United States’ 5G network and is also considering invoking emergency powers to restrict further Chinese investment in such sensitive sectors.
But Huawei and ZTE are not Washington’s sole concern. While U.S. firms like Intel and Qualcomm are critical players in the 5G system overall, the United States does not have a major domestic manufacturer of 5G radio access network hardware. Accordingly, the United States is voluntarily walling itself off on 5G by eschewing Huawei and ZTE, since there are only three other companies, Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson, that are currently exploring end-to-end solutions for 5G.
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