The world came together to build 5G. Next generation wireless technology is now pulling the world apart.
The latest version of the 5G technical specs expected on Friday offers features to connect autonomous cars, smart factories, and Internet of Things devices to insanely fast 5G networks. The blueprints reflect global technology development efforts, with contributions from more than a dozen companies from Europe, the United States and Asia.
And yet 5G is also pulling nations apart – with the United States and China anchoring the tug of war. Tensions between Washington and Beijing over trade, human rights, dealing with COVID-19 and Chinese misinformation are escalating the global divisions around the use of 5G. A growing number of countries are joining either a Western or a Chinese version of the technology.
"National security and trade interests are all intertwined and it is very difficult to separate them," said Scott Wallsten, president of the Technology Policy Institute, a think tank.
The way in which 5G was created and how it is used now poses a continuing mystery to western countries: how can healthy competition and cooperation be reconciled with national interests and the rise of China?
The focus of the 5G dispute is Huawei, which is probably China's most important technology company and holds a dominant position in network devices, a large smartphone company and increasingly sophisticated chips. The company is accused of stealing technology and having close ties to the Chinese government that could enable cyber espionage. It has become a symbol of China's ambitions to dominate technology through innovation and shameful means.
The U.S. and a number of allies, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Taiwan, have banned Huawei and other Chinese telecommunications companies such as ZTE from their networks. Other nations have opposed the U.S. efforts to keep Huawei and other Chinese companies out of the picture. Argentina, Brazil, Russia, the Philippines and Thailand welcome China's 5G technology.
A key question is how this fork affects the functioning of a standard that should be open and global. "We risk further fragmentation of the Internet and the way different networks are connected," says Wallsten.
Even if 5G should be a truly global communication standard, the technical plans reflect the shift in national strengths and the resulting tensions.
The 5G standards include plans for insanely fast radio speeds of up to 1 GB per second – 50 times faster than the average US broadband connection – with few delays. Remember to play high-end games without delay or robots that feed on artificial intelligence in the cloud. And of course, 5G is expected to inspire innovations and companies that could change the technology landscape. According to various estimates, the technology could generate several trillion dollars for the global economy in the next few decades. It's no surprise that every country wants part of the action.
The technical specifications for 5G are being developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a coalition of standard organizations from the United States, Europe, China, Japan, India and South Korea. The group puts the finishing touches to version 16 of the 5G specifications. It will add features that allow devices to jump into a wider range of radio spectra, providing high-precision positioning, vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, and more reliable functions. Virtually instant communication, critical for industrial purposes.
Many companies have contributed to the development of 5G, but the standard reflects a shift from US and European technology to Chinese compared to 4G, the previous standard. An analysis of contributions to 3GPP specifications published by IHS Markit in August 2019 found that Chinese companies contributed about 59 percent of the standards, with Huawei making up most of it. The 4G standards were led by European and American companies.
"The United States wrote 4G," said Charles Clancy, vice president of intelligence programs at MITER, a nonprofit that manages US research projects. "In the meantime, government subsidies and cyber theft of competitors' intellectual property have made Huawei the global leader while nobody was watching," said Clancy, who investigated 5G security. "They slowly took control of the standard groups and China wrote 5G." Huawei declined to comment.
It remains difficult to estimate how much China can benefit from its role in shaping standards – or how much the United States will lose. Defining technical standards can give hardware manufacturers an advantage in developing products that use these standards. Huawei has also been accused of making it difficult to combine its hardware with other devices. A November report from the Center for New American Security warns that 5G promises such widespread use that if China gets too far, the US could suffer economically and militarily.
However, the competition can be difficult. Last month, the U.S. government spelled out a rule that allows U.S. companies to work with Huawei on technical standards after previous versions appeared to have prompted U.S. companies to reduce their involvement in standard design.
Despite the complexity, many countries are compatible with the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the tide was turning against Huawei last week and welcomed "clean telecommunications companies" in India, France, Australia, South Korea, and the UK that spurn the Chinese company's technology. On the same day, the Singapore government chose Ericsson from Sweden and Nokia from Finland to replace Huawei to install their national 5G network.
Some countries seem interested in taking advantage of the US-China division. The day after Singapore made its choice, Japan's dominant telecommunications company NTT Docomo acquired a 5 percent stake in hardware manufacturer NEC, and the companies outlined plans to compete at 5G worldwide. The Japanese government also signaled plans to advance a Japanese version of the technology.
5G has inspired new coalitions between nations, including the D-10, a UK-proposed coalition of democratic nations that would work together on technologies like 5G and global supply chains.
Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity politician and fellow of the Chinese digital economy in New America, notes that the U.S. is becoming increasingly aggressive against China in areas such as artificial intelligence, chip development, and 5G by proposing more investment in chip manufacturing technology and in China to promote open communication standards.
This story first appeared on wired.com.