There is little doubt that 5G will be part of our future digital infrastructure. Nevertheless, there is still uncertainty how bumpy the rollout will be when considering potential adversities like geopolitical tension, security vulnerabilities, bottlenecks in the infrastructure and even expected health risks. Here we will take a closer look at these hurdles and which dilemma’s they introduce for the parties involved.

Our observations

  • Vodafone gave a public warning that a Huawei ban would result in huge costs for the UK and Vodafone as it will cause a significant delay and would cost hundreds of millions to strip existing Huawei equipment from their 4G network.
  • T-Mobile announced that the launch of their 5G network is being postponed to the second half of 2020. The main reason for the delay is the lack of phones that can tap into the critical low-band 600MHz spectrum that will power much of its early 5G coverage.
  • AT&T has been openly accused of misleading consumers by naming their cellular service 5G Evolution (5GE), with the attempt to associate their service with next-gen tech even though technically it still falls within the 4G category. Mobile carrier Sprint has even taken AT&T to court since AT&T’s naming scheme presumably hurts the 5G brand before it has even hit the market.
  • During the ‘Health in Buildings Roundtable’ Dr. Martin Hall Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Basic Medical Sciences from the Washington State University told the National Institute of Health (NIH) that ‘the rollout of 5G is insane’ referring to the potential health risks of electromagnetic fields (EMF). He substantiates his verdict with his review of existing studies that claim a relation between various health risks and EMF.
  • South-Korea initially planned to roll out their 5G network in the last week of March, thereby becoming the first country to make 5G commercially available. Unfortunately, they are facing delays due to disagreements over pricing models between carriers and the government. Another reason is that LG and Samsung are not ready to ship their 5G compatible phones as they are respectively facing supply chain issues and delays in their quality tests.
  • A group of researchers found three security flaws in the 4G and 5G network, which allowed them to intercept phone calls, track location and carry out targeted phishing attacks.
  • A 5G powered Apple iPhone will not appear until 2020 due to Intel’s troubled roadmap for their 5G modem chips, resulting in Apple being more than a year behind competitors. Presumably, Apple has been in talks with Samsung Electronics and Mediatek in search for alternative suppliers. Furthermore, it seems that Apple is trying to produce their own modem chips to be less dependent on suppliers.

Connecting the dots

Similar to the emergence of the mobile web, which relied on the synergy between 3G, the smartphone and useful applications, 5G also faces a chicken-egg problem in which the success of each functional part is codependent on each other. Consequently, delays in shipping a 5G device with a large player like Apple could have considerable consequences in creating a market for 5G. Furthermore, it might not be necessarily a phone, but a different end-device or even the interplay of multiple consumer devices in combination with novel applications that will demonstrate use cases for the combination of a large bandwidth, low latency, high density connectivity and always online. Until then, 5G might only get a lukewarm reception.
In addition to a healthy ecosystem, the rollout of 5G is also partly determined by being able to address a collection of technical complications, whether it be standard setting issues, spectrum interference or security risks. With regards to the latter, interestingly, a lot of the security issues will probably only become apparent after the 5G network has been installed, which could still impact the rollout of the wider 5G ecosystem consisting of end devices and applications. One potential attack vector, as expected by IT professor Stuart Madnick from MIT, is through deploying DDOS attacks organized through unsecured IoT devices, similar to the Dyn attack in 2016. Furthermore, as 5G is more software-defined than previous network generations, security experts warn for the potential of back doors in modems and antennas, which could result in data breaches, hostile take-overs or system crashes.
Especially against the backdrop of geopolitical tensions, the risk for back doors has drawn a lot of attention, as exemplified by the Huawei case. Regardless of the technical aspects, the political consequences of these perceived security risks seem to have different consequences for the rollout per country. The US and China seem to have a stronger position, as they have been preparing for this scenario both from a regulatory- and supply-chain perspective, and thereby determine the rules of the game. Europe on the other hand is only now taking regulatory steps under the pressure of a US ban and seems to be divided on the matter, frustrating operators and equipment suppliers in their roadmaps and projected costs. However, Ericsson CEO Borje Ekholm is not convinced that geopolitical security considerations alone are the main culprit for the fact that Europe is lagging behind. Instead he poses that the regulatory uncertainty, investment climate and high spectrum fees are a more likely explanation for the delay. Case in point, only less than half of the countries in Europe have actually given out spectrum for 5G. Additionally, telcos in Italy have been drained by a government auction of 5G airwaves (a

record sale of $7.5 billion in total), which was allegedly plagued by too rigid rules and a starting price that was too high. As a consequence, many doubt if these telcos still have enough funds to roll out the infrastructure itself. On the other hand, the US faces issues of its own when it comes to ensuring connectivity throughout the country. Consolidation has resulted in a telco market with only a few large players. Consequently, the market has been reluctant to lower prices and connect rural areas with high-speed broadband and 4G. The Verge questions to what extent the rollout of 5G will be different. On the other hand, with the ongoing 5G arms race with China, Trump’s unexpected campaign promise to push for a 5G open-access wholesale network, could turn this situation around as it could invite more competition and innovation.
Lastly, next to technological, political and economic hurdles, 5G could also face some social backlash due to its association with potential health risks. VOX has shown that the research is still inconclusive when it comes to the impact of existing wireless technology on our health. At the same time they also plead for more research as the future with 5G technology could be different, due to higher antenna density and the emittance of millimeter waves. However, regardless of there being any actual risk, the potential of health risks is in some cases already enough to have substantial consequences for the way this new technology will be received. For example, in Switzerland, the rollout of 5G is already met with resistance: regulators are not willing to relax radiation limits dictated in their Ordinance on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ONIR) and Swiss citizens generally seem to be wary with regards to the placement of cellular towers.
As we can see, the installation phase of next-gen communication infrastructure is not a straightforward process. As it is expected to be deeply embedded in our society and will drive our future economy, a lot is at stake for the different parties involved. We have also seen that each country (or union for that matter) will have to make a different tradeoff, based on their strategic interest with some interesting dilemmas to boot. Should European countries risk security issues and their deteriorating relationship with the US in the pursuit of more advanced and cheaper tech? Should the US overhaul its national market in order to win the 5G arm’s race? Should governments push for the rollout of next-gen communication tech despite some potential health risks? Should companies continue with the implementation amidst regulatory uncertainty?

Implications

    • China seems to be best positioned in rolling out their 5G network and dealing with aforementioned issues, due to the presence of a strong supply chain, the close connection between the government and corporations and central coordination.
    • Against the background of hegemonic dynamics, countries will increasingly become more self-reliant regarding their supply chains. Moreover, hardware suppliers with a neutral stance will be stimulated by countries that want to remain independent in the US-China tug of war.
    • As written before, some countries and companies could adopt a more wait-and-see attitude, preferring some delay over the risk of hasty misinvestments.