NewsTechnology and InnovationThe Macroscope

The coming geopolitics of 5G

What happened?

Last week, AT&T’s 5G network went live in 12 cities in the U.S., the first sign that the 5G era is upon us. Next year, many telecom operators will start deploying 5G mobile network infrastructure, handset manufacturers will bring 5G smartphones to market, and chipmakers will launch specialized 5G hardware. Basically, 5G is the fifth generation of mobile cellular network technology, following up on current 4G/LTE networks. Technically, 5G is the agreed upon set of standards defined by the International Telecommunication Union and 3GPP, who cooperate with hardware companies and telecom carriers to define 5G mobile networks.

What does this mean?

5G’s evolutionary characteristic is that it can add more peak bitrate and speed to wireless networks. But 5G mobile network technology will also have revolutionary characteristics, supporting three types of use cases. First, 5G can handle substantially higher levels of capacity on wireless networks, enhancing wireless broadband to a factor of 100 (enabling, for example, the streaming of 4K movies). Second, 5G provides reliable, ultra-low latency communications: 5G can handle (almost) immediate and uninterrupted connectivity, which is important to essentially mobile services and products (e.g. self-driving cars). Lastly, 5G networks can handle many more connected devices at the same time, increasing the scalability for digital ecosystems (such as in the Fourth Industrial Revolution). As such, 5G is an ingredient technology that shapes our future digital worlds, enabling our smart cities, IoT, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and applied technology such as tele-surgery or smart farming.

What’s next?

Given that 5G will provide the critical infrastructure of our information systems and will empower so many future technologies, the next generation of mobile cellular network technology will also have significant geopolitical impacts. Europe and the U.S. led the transition of previous generations, but the transition to 5G might be led by Asia. South Korea and Japan are investing heavily to develop 5G standards and its technology, but it is China that is leading in the race to deploy and implement 5G mobile networks. In 2018, we have seen that the emerging consciousness of China’s 5G leadership has led to harsh reactions, from the near bankruptcy of ZTE because of its trade ban in the U.S., to Western companies banning 5G hardware manufactured by Huawei. As 5G will finally come to markets next year, the competition between superpowers to obtain or maintain global digital leadership will only intensify.