5G Discourse Veering Ever So Slightly Toward Xenophobia

Mike Dano
10/23/2019

MWC Los Angeles -- 5G continues to be a hot topic of discussion here, but increasingly the content of those conversations is taking a nationalistic bent.

For example, Gogo this week specifically pointed out that all of its 5G equipment suppliers are US companies. Similarly, Dish Network has indicated that it will favor US suppliers for its own planned 5G network.

And vendors are taking the hint: Ericsson recently announced it will move some of its 5G manufacturing efforts to the US. Meantime, JMA touted plans to expand its own US-based manufacturing efforts with a new center focused on 5G.

US telecom regulators also have been pushing the issue. During a keynote appearance here, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reportedly pointed out that US wireless network operators are only using 5G equipment from "trusted vendors." That's likely a reference to Sweden's Ericsson, Finland's Nokia and South Korea's Samsung, which are the three major 5G equipment suppliers in the US market.

Pai's focus on the question of 5G trust and security comes as no surprise, however: The FCC has been investigating whether to prevent US telecom companies that receive government subsidies from spending that money with Chinese vendors like Huawei and ZTE. That's because a number of US officials argue equipment from those suppliers poses a national security risk as it could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans. Huawei and ZTE have denied those claims.

Handicapping the 'race to 5G'
Further, Pai and other US regulators and lawmakers have framed the wider issue as a "race to 5G." In that paradigm, the US could potentially miss out on economic opportunities if China builds a sizable 5G network first, thus attracting investment from startups, entrepreneurs and others looking to develop new, 5G-based services and applications.

But FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr this week took the argument even further, asserting in a speech here that the US will undoubtedly win the race to 5G simply because the country's operators are building 5G in response to customer demands rather than government mandates. He cited Chinese reports that indicate operators in that country are building 5G networks to meet Communist party deployment goals and aren't even bothering to switch the networks on for customers to actually use.

On the other hand, Carr said, US operators are working under the pressures of capitalism, which, he added, rewards useful, profitable endeavors and punishes wasteful spending.

Whether the US is in the lead in 5G is up for debate. For example, new findings from network-research company Opensignal show that US providers do indeed offer the fastest 5G speeds in the world, but also that Americans are spending the least amount of time actually connected to 5G. "Whether this is a symptom of the 5G rollout being in its early stages or due to unique 5G spectrum challenges in the US remains a key question," the firm noted, referring to the fact that most US operators are using millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum for their deployments. Signals in that spectrum can't travel very far geographically but can carry enormous amounts of data.

Regardless, the "race to 5G" certainly dovetails well with the Trump administration's ongoing trade war with China. As part of that, President Trump has levied serious tariffs on products coming out of China. That has already pushed a number of companies to relocate their manufacturing operations elsewhere in order to avoid those tariffs.

For some telecom executives, these issues go beyond simple calculations of profit and loss and get into more serious matters, like patriotism and faith.

But there's certainly a slippery slope between supporting domestic companies and opposing foreign ones. After all, one operator's list of "trusted vendors" might not be the same as another's list. Is Taiwan a trusted manufacturing location for 5G equipment? What about Vietnam? Or Brazil? And could Nokia's Finland get swept up in a wider trade battle?

As the noise around 5G grows to a roar, it's reasonable to expect players across a global wireless industry to begin moving against any early signs of jingoism. After all, the organization driving the official 5G technology standard, the 3GPP, is expected to release updated specifications next year from its meeting in Jeju, an island that is part of South Korea.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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