China is leading the race to deploy an ultra-fast mobile internet and any move to sideline its tech companies could delay its implementation worldwide.
The debate over whether developed countries should block Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE from participating in construction of 5G networks has pitted industry experts against security hawks.
This divergence in views manifested itself in the United Kingdom, where the government’s own cyber security officials say that any risk posed by untrusted suppliers of 5G equipment can be contained.
That’s basically saying that there’s another way to keep check on the Chinese firms other than imposing an outright ban.
The claim attracted a swift response from the Royal United Services Institute, a defence think-tank, which insisted that allowing Huawei to build the UK’s fifth generation mobile network would be “irresponsible”.
Fears that China could use its tech companies to install backdoors in telecoms equipment in order to spy, are threatening to hamper the 5G rollout, which half a dozen countries are eyeing to build in the coming years.
So what is 5G?
It is a fast mobile internet, much faster than 4G, and it offers a download speed that is 10 to 100 times than any currently available service.
It is not just the speed that makes it so different. The existing 3G and 4G networks were conceived to move voice and other data between handsets. Even though this revolutionised many industries such as the ride hailing services in transport sector, it was not strong enough to support some advanced applications.
One feature of 5G that makes it standout is the low latency, which means there will be few or no gaps in communication between devices. This adds higher capacity to the network, allowing more people and devices to work on the network at the same time without slowing it down.
What technologies will it enable?
Only a few years ago, it was hard to predict how prevalent ride-hailing app Uber or Facebook’s live streaming function would become. Just as we don’t know for sure the number of technologies that 5G could help unleash.
There are, however, products already out there that need 5G — for instance self-driving cars.
Right now, wireless internet doesn’t have the capacity to move the amount of data and instructions in real time to help autonomous vehicles navigate incoming obstacles and avoid accidents.
Instead, 5G will let self-driving cars exchange information with each other in a fraction of a second, a key feature that allows one car to know the speed, acceleration and position of another.
It’s potential can also revolutionise manufacturing by increasing the role of robots in factories and bringing down costs.
Factories around the world have been automating for years but many production functions are still done by humans.
Swedish tech company Ericsson, which is in the race for supplying 5G equipment, has already run tests at its radio product manufacturing plant in Nanjing, China. It replaced the manual monitoring of high-precision screwdrivers with electronic sensors — cutting manual work by 50 percent.
Another application that’s often cited includes remote surgeries — where a doctor from one country can perform surgical operation on a patient in another country using fast connectivity and machines.
Who are the 5G manufacturers?
Consumers buy mobile internet from cellular service providers in their respective countries. But the infrastructure which enables the internet is built by a handful of companies.
More than a dozen are currently vying to become vendors of the network equipment, chipsets and other devices which will be used in 5G networks.
Key network vendors include China’s Huawei and ZTE, Ericsson from Sweden, Nokia from Finland and South Korean giant Samsung.
The Chinese companies, which didn’t play a major role in 3G and 4G networks, are now set to lead the race despite restrictions from the US and some of its allies such as Australia.
Any push to sideline Chinese companies could delay the 5G deployment because other suppliers need time to invest in building manufacturing facilities and finding trained workers, according to a Eurasia Group report.
When can we use 5G?
It will be introduced in two stages — non-stand alone (NSA) and stand alone.
The NSA version, which is an addition to existing 4G infrastructure to increase the internet speed by 10 times, will be implemented by next year in the US, European Union, Japan, South Korea and Australia,
But the network with its full capability is not expected to be available in these countries before 2025.
On the other hand, China Mobile plans to have the complete 5G in place by next year, giving it a first mover advantage as it strongly projects itself as a supplier the carriers in other countries can rely on.