The last stand: 5G West and 5G East vie to lead the second wave

The competition between nations for leadership in communications, has morphed into outright combat. If it's not a campaign the US can win, do we start drawing down the mission? Or can the hope of a second wave compel us to double down?
Written by Scott Fulton III, Contributor

It's one of those things someone publishes at the last possible moment, when he's leaving office and won't be around to catch the blowback from anyone he might offend: Last Jan. 19, on the final day of the last presidential administration, the US Commerce Dept. issued a proposed rule: Any unrestricted acquisition of information technology made by a foreign adversary, "constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat" to the very underpinnings of life in the US.


"Vulnerabilities to data integrity," states the rule, invoking the now-familiar nightmare scenario for 5G Wireless, "can be created by including a foreign adversary's hardware and software into U.S. networks and systems. This incorporated hardware and software pose opportunities to add or remove important information, modify files or data streams, slow down, or otherwise modify the normal transmission or availability of data across U.S. networks. Such capabilities could be exercised in areas as diverse as financial market communications, satellite communications or control, or sensitive consumer information."

It's the timing of this rule that gives away its true purpose. The Commerce Dept. had the previous four years, minus one day, to declare any communications technology or IT introduced into a network from [insert euphemism for China here] a threat to national security. If it's a bad idea to blow up a global standard, it could be the next administration's responsibility to clean it up. The old team can be seen as having upheld capitalist values and the flag (or, at least, a flag); the new team, up to its eyeballs in cleanup, can be seen as responsible for the damage.


East-West relationships

Here is the heart of the real issue: Much of the intellectual property we need to move 5G Wireless deployment forward, as well as the system of collaboration that makes "G" generations feasible, is based in China. The US now formally recognizes China as a "foreign adversary." Being able to utilize that IP previously required US manufacturers to act as suppliers to China-based firms, including Huawei. So while the US Government took a public stand against its adversary throughout 2020, US equipment makers were actually receiving licenses to continue to do business with Huawei. Lobbyists had evidently -- and successfully -- argued their case that these business relationships were critical to their survival, and in turn, the health of the American economy.


The outgoing administration then announced its intent to nullify those licenses, on the Friday evening before leaving office, when it didn't really have time to fulfill that intent.

Close observers of ongoing events probably expected the incoming administration to backtrack on these rules, giving the outgoing party an opportunity to declare the new administration "soft on China" and "anti-5G" at the same time. For a matter of weeks, it wasn't exactly clear how the Biden Administration would reconcile its approaches to 5G Wireless, to national infrastructure, and to China policy.

Then in April, perhaps to everyone's surprise, the new team took the ball where the last team left it and ran it further down the field in the same direction.

"Decades ago, we used to invest 2 percent of our gross domestic product in America. . . in research and development," Pres. Biden remarked, in a statement to a joint session of Congress on April 29. "Today, Mr. Secretary, that's less than 1 percent. China and other countries are closing in fast. We have to develop and dominate the products and technologies of the future: advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips, clean energy."

Mr. Biden made these comments before a sparsely populated legislative body, representing a nation whose manufacturers play less of a role in the 5G radio market than Finland's.


Last June 3, the President issued an executive order that sought to tighten, and to some degree sharpen, the language of the January 19 proposed order. The new order specifies the threat posed by China, from the US Government's vantage point, as coming not from "information and communications technology and services" (ICTS) but rather "Chinese surveillance technology." It then goes on to prohibit the exchange by US persons of securities or derivatives with a number of listed entities, unsurprisingly including Huawei and China Mobile.

It's a move that prompted Duke University Associate Professor Matt Perault, and Yale Senior Fellow Ms. Samm Sacks, writing for Lawfare, to propose that Mr. Biden implement "a fair and transparent licensing regime" for US companies (for instance, Intel) that want to do business with those listed entities. Such a regime would give the US a means of pre-evaluating and then permitting the kinds of collaborations that global standards such as 5G require. . . so long as it wasn't done in secret. "To avoid the pitfalls of the murky, nonpublic licensing regimes of the past," wrote Sacks and Perault, "the government should establish clear criteria for granting a license.

Put another way, they would have the US say one thing and do another, just out in the open so it's obvious.

Is it too late to extend the olive branch to China-based firms, either under the table or above board, enabling them to rejoin the global telecom standards discussion (or, from China's standpoint, enabling us to rejoin their process), and enabling those firms to be fully sanctioned, licensed partners in 5G again?


"With any technology standard, it's never done. So the question that emerges," responded Prof. Henning Schulzrinne, the former FCC CTO, now with Columbia University, "is, does China see [5G] as essentially a single-winner game, where either they win and everybody else loses? Or is it something where they can see that as, by necessity, something that is of an interest in having a more collaborative relationship?" Speaking with ZDNet, Prof. Schulzrinne continued:

The reason I say "by necessity" is, there is a danger, from a Chinese perspective, that you don't just have Huawei banned, but you essentially have a divergence in standards as well. So you have kind of a Western standard and an Eastern standard, that would not be in the interest of a dominant supplier, or country, of telecommunications equipment. To some extent, there's an interest in keeping competition at a level that does not lead to, essentially, a split. It would likely lead to a very much diminished role, where countries would have to not just pick providers of telecommunications equipment, but they would essentially have to pick standards, and standard architectures as well. I don't think that's much of a concern for the Chinese domestic market, but it certainly would be for a lot of countries in Asia and Africa, maybe even some parts of Europe. . . and maybe even in South America as well.

If we let the geopolitical split carve 5G, along with any future "G's," into two or even three separate standards, there's a good chance such a split would hurt the US and Europe more than it would China. All sides, from Prof. Schulzrinne's view, have an interest in re-establishing global cooperation. But there's a danger there, too: A re-emerging global standard might lose the support it needs from lawmakers who can too easily capitalize on a "soft-on-China" stance. Some of these lawmakers and regulators have it within their power to advance the cause of disinformation, enabling opponents of 5G tower buildouts to obstruct deployment efforts for the least rational of reasons.


The middle band

How does the US reassert itself as a leader in 5G and other technologies, as the President aims to do, without secluding itself on a technology island, separated from the worldwide engineers it needs to make 5G -- and later 6G -- succeed?

"It sounded to me like the premise was that we needed to reassert because we hadn't. Obviously, I would quibble with that framing," responded FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr to this question from ZDNet. "I do think we were at risk of losing US leadership in 5G, particularly in 2015 and 2016. And I think the efforts we put in place the last couple of years really turned the tide on this."

Commissioner Carr cited a 2018 Deloitte report [PDF], which referenced China's five-year, $400+ billion investment in its own national infrastructure, and warned of China and its partners "creating a 5G tsunami, making it near impossible to catch up."

"The reality is, we sort of leap-frogged our global counterparts when it came to the buildout of 5G networks," continued Carr (appointed by the previous president in 2017). "We were first to commercial 5G, we have the strongest 5G network in the world, we made leaps-and-bounds progress in freeing up mid-band spectrum. So I think the reality is, we are now in really good shape when it comes to global leadership in 5G. The challenge now is to extend that. I think that is, sticking at the pace we hit with spectrum, not reversing course on infrastructure."


Competing with Huawei, the Commissioner went on, requires a strategy he describes as "working with our global counterparts -- which we did, successfully."

Is there data to back up Commissioner Carr's claim? A July 2021 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit called "The 5G Readiness Guide" does credit the US with having boosted its rollout plan for repurposing and auctioning radio spectrum for 5G purposes. It also credits the US Government with having supported the establishment of research facilities and so-called "innovation zones."

But the report goes on to state, "A policy vacuum in the US has resulted in inconsistent regulations." That vacuum, it explains, is on account of the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of the Commerce Dept.) both having overseen spectrum policy for the past several years, without either or both acting as a central authority.


"Prior to Joe Biden's appointment, what we saw was multiple US regulatory bodies that were involved in different aspects of the telecom sector," explained Laveena Iyer, an EIU research analyst and co-author of the report, speaking with ZDNet. As Iyer continued:

There was one body that was specifically dealing with assigning regulatory spectrum; there was another body that was thinking about things like right-of-way passage rules, mobile base station rollouts. There was a very different agency looking at NOC/SOC coverage [network operations center / service operations center]. And of course, there was a lot of vacancies at the FCC as well. As a result, decision-making somehow was slowed down significantly in the US market. We don't expect that to be a hindrance anymore, because the US market was pretty advanced when it came to identifying and assigning mid-band spectrum, high-band spectrum. Yes, it has done it gradually. Not all of it was assigned in the very first slot in 2018. So going forward, for the US market in particular, we don't expect that to be a problem, because we see that Joe Biden's administration is making an effort to centralize the policy making, and ensure that all of it is done at one shot, in one national policy.

There's high momentum in the US for deploying 5G equipment, states Iyer's report, but it hasn't resulted in measurable differences in bandwidth and download speeds over 4G -- not even compared with 5G rollouts in Canada. Where are the countries (besides China) having better luck with their 5G buildouts? South Korea and Taiwan are obvious. Finland is another since Scandinavia has already become the 5G capital of the North Atlantic.

But the Middle East has also become a bright spot, according to Iyer's data. Even though it's been difficult to deploy new base stations, for reasons mostly out of telcos' control, the availability of repurposed spectrum for 5G has been surprisingly high. And cooperation between governments and service providers has made the less life-endangering parts of their respective nationwide rollouts, relatively smooth.


"What we noticed in the Middle East -- what they got right," remarked Iyer, "[is that] countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, managed to vacate the relevant bands of spectrum much before. And when options were announced, they managed to offer spectrum -- because in some cases, it's three state-run operators in one market -- across all three bands: 700 MHz, 3.3 - 3.5 GHz, and also 24 - 28 GHz. This ensured there was wider coverage, there were experiments happening for better speed, low latency, all at the same time. So operators got access to it in the very first auction."

Many Middle Eastern telcos happen to include state-run companies, she pointed out. So to ensure fairness, governments there made sure that some blocks of spectrum were distributed equitably. As she continued:

The second thing the Middle East did really well is incorporate 5G into their economic diversification plans. The benefits of 5G were not just being written about, but actually being factored into different elements of industries: smart city projects in Saudi Arabia, improving digital governance services in the UAE. 5G was not just being considered as a telecom service enhancement, [but] how it can be used as a base to improve other industries, to generate more employment. I think they will continue to do well, because it features in most of their vision statements.

Iyer credits the hands-on policies of governments that played more of an active stakeholder role in 5G, for successes in getting at least some higher-speed 5G services established. At least it looks like "real 5G" in some places in the world -- particularly those, she noted, that built out quality-of-service early in that middle band between 3.3 and 3.5 GHz. In the US, we call this the "C-band" or the "mid-band." This is the prime territory for deploying services that consumers will be more likely to utilize sooner, with either their current generation of smartphones or the next one down the road in a few months.


Waiting for the second wave

It may be 2023 before spectrum from the C-band auction earlier this year -- much of which was acquired by Verizon for the enormous sum of close to $53 billion -- comes online for consumer use. It will be at that point, wrote Raj Radjassamy, the director of 5G product management for electric power equipment provider ABB, in a piece for Network Computing, that we start to see the types of connectivity and efficiency gains that lead to cultural shifts.


When C-band comes online, Radjassamy wrote, "the balanced yet significant benefits of mid-band 5G will accommodate new hybrid models of work that seek to maintain productivity, flexibility, and efficiency by blending the traditional experience of working inside the office with working from home."

"It is not a single wave for 5G," asserted Radjassamy, in an interview with ZDNet. "It is going to be, I would say, at least two waves." As Radjassamy continued:

We had an initial wave with the low band, that had been going on with the last two years. Now the mid-band is coming in. . . 2023 is when the remaining 180 MHz of bandwidth is going up. Until 2023, it's only going to be 100 MHz. Until 2023, 2024, the dominance of C-band, the mid-band, is going to happen. And after 2024, it's going to be the high band. This is where the real 5G will impact us. That is the real 5G that consumers will start seeing. By then, I think we'll be in the sunset phase of 4G, the 5G consumer phase will start happening. So it's a beautiful amalgamation of several things lining up nicely. . . We are planning for that type of eventuality. We don't think that this 5G is all going to be in the next couple of years.

Radjassamy's prediction reveals a scenario where the US, along with other countries that refrained from taking a hands-on, or "state-run" approach to spectrum allocation, accomplishes the kind of leap-frogging that Commissioner Carr believes already happened. This second chance, if you will, may depend in large measure on whether the final Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, should it emerge from the caverns of Congress and Pres. Biden sign it into law, choose to include 5G Wireless as part of "universal broadband infrastructure." That's not a certainty, although there are proposals on the table for that infrastructure to be funded in part by proceeds from 5G spectrum auctions. (Verizon will have built a chunk of the 5G network, one way or the other.)

At issue is whether increased government involvement in America's 5G buildouts would lead to increased regulatory oversight, followed by de facto "state-run" leadership. Historically, the US has taken a negative view of state-run service providers, particularly countries that directly influence, if not altogether dictate, their tech companies' agendas. But there's evidence, including from the EIU report, that whether folks like it or not, countries with more hands-on leadership (as opposed to what the FCC calls "light-touch regulation") are further along with 5G deployment than the US is.

"I think I fall in the camp that believes that we need regulatory stability," remarked EIU's Laveena Iyer. She cited Nigeria, where smartphone adoption by the general population hovers only around 80 percent, and the country's first consultation papers with 5G service providers were only just published in the last few weeks. The pattern she sees is this: Where governments haven't led the way, telcos and service providers have either gone their own direction -- literally rolling their own 5G standards -- or remained dormant. The latter group, she noted, includes her native India, where leading provider Reliance Jio has developed its own "5G" radio access network, called FlexRAN (with Intel's help, no less); and Vietnam, whose largest provider, Viettel, beat competitors to deployment with its own "5G" service model.


"The regulatory flip-flops. . . continue to be an issue that plagues different sectors in Africa," Iyer continued. Her research points to progress, however, primarily in locales where, as she told us, "governments have taken steps early on -- if they made a decision on what they want to do with 5G, or not do with 5G, spread across a decade or half-a-decade -- and collaborated with all stakeholders."

"It's a three-layer cake," remarked ABB's Radjassamy. "We are done with the low-band; now we are in the mid-band. As the technology matures, and people have more capital to invest in the high-band, that will start happening. Then maybe, as the high-band expands, that will be the start of 6G as well."

Columbia University's Prof. Schulzrinne foresees a danger in projecting the benefits of a grand, interconnected future in more and further successive waves and generations. The burgeoning talent (and some of the cultivated talent) that telcos and tech companies need to enable higher-bandwidth services, he pointed out, are looking for employers capable of investing in them today, not tomorrow.

"We're increasingly losing not just the industry itself," he remarked. "We're losing the human capacity to even have an industry."

In the power industry, he reminded us, we have already seen several extended periods of time where investments in academic research dried up, eliminating the cache of replacements for power providers' existing workforces. With nobody studying power engineering, talent shortages soon followed. Remarked Schulzrinne:

It used to be the case that the US had a dominant industry in power engineering -- generators, transformers, switching equipment. To some extent, this industry was seen as mature, meaning research and development investment by the large companies -- the electric utilities, the suppliers, General Electric, and others -- greatly diminished. It also meant, at the university level, every electrical engineering department used to have probably several power faculty associates -- people who were in some part of the electric generation and distribution business. That was a standard part of the curriculum, a standard part of the research portfolio for a university electrical engineering department. Because government funding and private industry funding in research in that area diminished to essentially zero, universities never replaced faculty who retired, courses dried up, and suddenly the electric utilities, when older engineers started to retire, could not find new talent to run their business.

So when a complete mindset shift moved the power industry from mechanical systems to electronics and network-controlled systems, the professor continued, the US lacked both the generator industry and the utility industry to follow the rest of the world in the transition, once innovation skyrocketed again. Europe took the lead in the power industry, leaving North America behind. Today, Columbia University has no teaching program for power engineering.

"I see the same thing happening, unfortunately, in the communications space," he said. "I often compare networking now to civil engineering. We all suffer, if we don't do it well. We often notice it, when it is not done well."



We've done this before. We've pushed our expectations for success, for excitement, for "customer experience," and for revenue further out to the next wave, the revision, the "2.0" edition, the "3.0" edition. Version 8, version 10, version 11. We let our expectations be built up, and we let our hopes be dashed too soon, when the second wave gets put off, postponed, and the objectives for the present get watered down.

It's this fixation on the future that keeps us stuck in the past. We all know how marketing approaches the topic of evolution vs. obsolescence: to kick the can down the road, to focus our sights on the horizon, to build our anticipation for what's next, especially if it can offset our disappointment with the present state of affairs. Our current disaffection with 5G -- which is measurable -- is mainly about failure to meet these expectations. The support system 5G needs to be applicable to the context of our lives and work, doesn't work yet. That system is comprised not of standards, not networks, not backhaul but people.

In 1987, I produced a feature for Computer Shopper about Atari, a company known mainly for Pong, Breakout, and Asteroids, building a massively parallel processing system called a Transputer, with the intention to sell it to consumers in computer stores and retail shops. In time, a few dozen or so were actually built. But the era of parallelism was here, I declared enthusiastically, and we'd better get used to living in it.

"Scotty," said my editor-in-chief, and a man I genuinely miss in life, Stan Veit, "you are so delightfully naïve." He told me it was as though I believed a company can just pop out a product of its factory, a software writer can save UNIX for it on a floppy disk, and humanity as we know it will change overnight, he said. Stan had been a retailer, a computer store owner, he reminded me, and from his experience, nothing works that way. He'd told Steve Jobs the same thing, and now he was telling me: A bold idea needs a support system. It needs a sales channel. It needs a marketing plan. It needs a users' group. Layers upon layers of services, he explained, refraining from calling it "infrastructure" because that's not a term the Army ever used in Korea.

It can be the best computer you've ever used in your life, he told me. For it to be successful -- the sort of product they publish magazines about -- it needs scale.

This one's for Stanley.

Until our next adventure together, my friends, hold true. 


Table runner for today's game of 5Geo based on a quilt pattern entitled Pierced by Jennifer Fulton, featured on InquiringQuilter.com.

5G gargoyles by Katerina Fulton.

Dice used in today's 5Geo game are URWizards D&D Dichroic Prism Glass Gemstone Engraved Dice, available for purchase from URWizards.com.

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