What if 5G fails? A preview of life after faith in technology

The theme of our technology economy is based upon a projection of a more industrious, efficient, and productive near-term future for everyone. Should the course of progress encounter a U-turn, how long would we withstand regression?
Written by Scott Fulton III, Contributing Editor on

We've been down this road before. There were two 3G wireless platforms in 2007, and there were about to be three 4G wireless platforms. In the US, Verizon Wireless laid down the gauntlet. First, it opened its CDMA network to customers' choices of wireless devices. Then, rather than backing the 4G platform that built on its own CDMA technology, Verizon endorsed LTE, built on the 3G GSM platform that was the foundation for rival AT&T's network

Verizon's historic moves led to an industry-wide ratification not only of 4G LTE, but of the communications industry partnership that gave rise to it: 3GPP. It sewed all 4G platforms together, establishing a single backbone for the global wireless ecosystem.

Failure might be an obsession of mine. I've been down that road a few times before myself. But this occasion, unlike others, does not require a dissertation just to define failure in this context: For 5G's multitude of goals to be simultaneously achievable -- achieving connectivity, ubiquity, and affordability -- the global, collaborative backbone of radio equipment suppliers, telecommunications engineers, device manufacturers, and chipset fabricators brought together by 4G, must continue unimpeded. A collapse of global trade relations among the countries where these organizations are headquartered would render most, perhaps all, of these goals impossible.

Build the wall

On February 13, the US Justice Dept. announced it was expanding its existing federal indictment against China's leading telco, Huawei. It was an official signal to the world that the US would rather risk isolating itself in 5G -- arguably the world's most important global market -- than be perceived as a customer of its adversary.


It's the US' new frontline strategy against the world's 5G wireless market leader, as Sec. of State Mike Pompeo indicated in a recent joint press conference with his UK counterpart: Depict Huawei as an unfair player in global markets -- one that would sooner steal others' trade secrets than develop its own. If it's a global standard now, the indictment implies, it probably wasn't meant to be one to begin with.

"Huawei's efforts to steal trade secrets and other sophisticated U.S. technology were successful," the Justice Dept. alleged in a statement published February 13. "Through the methods of deception described above, the defendants obtained nonpublic intellectual property relating to internet router source code, cellular antenna technology and robotics. As a consequence of its campaign to steal this technology and intellectual property, Huawei was able to drastically cut its research and development costs and associated delays, giving the company a significant and unfair competitive advantage."

Scott Fulton

The following Sunday, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell announced through Twitter that President Trump had instructed him "to make clear that any nation who chooses to use an untrustworthy 5G vendor will jeopardize our ability to share Intelligence [sic] and information at the highest level." Days earlier, the German government published a rules and practices document for that country's 5G vendors that did not exclude Huawei from participating. Three days later, the President rewarded Grenell by appointing him Acting Director of National Intelligence, although he is expected to nominate someone else for the permanent position.

The nationalization of communications services that would pass themselves off as 5G is already under discussion -- in Germany, the United Kingdom, and at an accelerated pace recently in France. There, in tandem with the release of a report on mobile service coverage levels, Eric Bothorel, a member of the ruling party in Parliament, is quoted by RFI as saying last week, "We will not depend on standards set by others, and therefore we will protect our digital sovereignty."

For his part, US Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is on record as opposing an American nationalization of 5G service. Instead, Pai supports re-auctioning reclaimed radio frequencies to 5G providers at an accelerated pace. Yet in an administration unrestrained from pulling itself in opposite directions simultaneously, Pai's voice is looking more and more like a cry in the wilderness.

Anyone who believes the present state of affairs to be the last gasp of a waning isolationist movement, however, should take note: The current Democratic presidential frontrunner, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.), has advocated a complete dissolution of the US telecom industry akin to his similar, would-be dissolution of the health insurance industry. In its place would be a kind of "Bell System," if you will -- a nationally subsidized broadband service provider, offering wireless access to Americans on its own terms as an entitlement.

It might be "5G," at least on the signs at each end of the line you'd have to wait in to receive it.


In a recent panel discussion entitled "Rethinking Global Markets," sponsored by The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Affairs magazine, former US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew warned a "tech cold war" between the US and China would have the effect of "decoupling" the world's leading economies from those of emerging economies, advanced by what had previously been known as "third-world countries."

"If it gets to a point where it's a broad decoupling of the developed from the emerging economies," said Sec. Lew, "that's not good for anyone. The growth of emerging economies would not be very impressive if they didn't have very active, robust trading relationships with developed economies. And the costs in developed economies would go up considerably, which means that the impact on consumers would be quite dramatic."

"We know, from the early days when there was CDMA and GSM," remarked Greg Guice, senior vice president at Washington, DC-based professional consultancy McGuireWoods, "that made it very difficult to sell equipment on a global basis. That not only hurt consumers, but it hurt the pace of technology."  He continued:

I think what the companies that are building the equipment, and seeking to deploy the equipment, are trying to figure out is, in a world where there may be fragmentation, how do we manage this? I don't see people Balkanizing into their own camps; I think everybody is trying to preserve, as best they can, international harmonization of a 5G platform. Those efforts are in earnest.

Guice falls on the optimistic side, among those who would even attempt prognostication at this point. He sees the global alliance -- what he calls the "international harmonization" -- to be something its participants will fight to maintain, especially after having invested so much in it already. The real challenges here may come when nations begin applying pressure to their respective telcos, regarding whose communications equipment they can purchase, when, and why. It's extremely difficult for any kind of a union to maintain harmony when its benefactors have already Balkanized in their name.

"There is a real risk -- there is so much hype surrounding 5G, that it has become something of a proxy for a country's technological prowess," remarked Doug Brake, who directs broadband and spectrum policy for Washington DC-based Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. "With the level of excitement and hype that there is, we run the risk of real, unmet expectations. I do think the industry as a whole would do well to tamp down some of the over-excitement in some areas."

Brake told ZDNet he believes some of the potential use cases in 5G's ever-broadening portfolio may be unrealistic. (Wireless gigabit service in limited areas, called mmWave, may be one example.) Yet the very existence of the loftiest of these goals, he says, may be driving certain heads of state to plant their respective countries' flags on the network wherever they can. He cited the US administration's 2018 suggestion that it develop a nationalized, centralized broadband service, to take sole charge of 5G in the US by 2021. Brake remarked:

That was just absolutely insane. And that's driven by a sort of overly inflated expectation of the necessity of having 5G as soon as possible. It's important that we get widespread networks deployed relatively soon, that we have networks that are capable of next-generation, low-latency, high-reliability, very-high-speed [services], on a wide enough scale that US application developers are able to find the new use cases, the new 'killer app' that makes 5G take off. We want that to happen in the US, and we need to have the right conditions for US innovators to be able to build on 5G. But if we're months, a few years late, even, compared to other countries that either have a different economic model, or a very different cost structure, it's not the end of the world.

There is a prevailing perception that the threat of countries nationalizing their communications and broadband services will probably not lead to nationalization actually happening. "Digital sovereignty" for the countries that claim it, can end up being whatever it is they end up attaining, however fuzzy that may become, and they can declare success.

But we've seen evidence of how skeptical consumers have already become -- for example, when AT&T last year jumped the gun by branding a cell tower upgrade as "5G E." My friend and ZDNet colleague Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols suggests 5G has already fallen short of the promises its practitioners built up for it. "Maybe everything you've been told by your telcos about 5G isn't a lie," Steven wrote for IDG Insider Pro, "but most of what they've told you about 5G is wrong."

"In the consumer's mind"

There is, therefore, a very real possibility of every stakeholder in the 5G cold war beating a hasty retreat, licking its wounds, and declaring victory. Should that happen -- again with an emphasis on "should" -- wouldn't 5G still have failed in the consumer's mind?

"Those last four words put a little bit of a twist on it for me," responded Ross Rubin, a contributor to ZDNet and principal at Reticle Research.

In his own recent discussions with developers in the Internet-of-Things space, Rubin told me, he's learned they've expressed their need to build their technology for the long term -- and, to that end, they've either chosen or are trying to choose a 5G base platform. As Rubin explained:

That would be an example of a force that would move 5G forward. It has nothing to do with orders of magnitude improvements in speed, or tiny bits of latency. I think the best precedent we can use is looking at 4G. Think of all the applications that have grown up in the past ten years, some of which may only be tangentially related to 4G.

He cites Uber as one example of an application whose perceived speed and effectiveness may have just as much to do with the mobile devices on which the app is run, the servers from which that app is deployed, and the GPS systems locating its various vehicles, as the network on which its transactions are exchanged. Yet when the app first attained commercial success worldwide, 4G was credited for that success.

Rubin's optimism comes from decades of experience watching consumers find the silver linings -- or even building silver mines -- whenever a technology such as mobile TV, high-resolution discs, or portable PCs have faced dark, menacing clouds. As he continued:

What really drives adoption is that consumers want to be part of something that has gone viral. They want to share their photos via Instagram, and now with 4G, it becomes a lot more practical to share videos. Maybe in the 5G era, if Instagram can hold onto its dominance, maybe it's longer videos, higher-resolution videos, archives of multi-user chat videos that are aggregated. . . Whether it's today's leading brands or startup developers, there's a lot of creativity out there, and I think a lot of that will naturally intersect with 5G.

Rubin believes consumers will figure it out in the end, if engineers don't. McGuireWoods' Guice believes engineers will figure it out in the end, if consumers can't:

These are highly sophisticated companies that are full of some really great engineers who can, at the end of the day, sit down and work a problem. There is this geopolitical overlay to what is a very technical set of issues. Once that geopolitical overlay settles a bit, then the engineers in those companies go to work to figure it out.

The sound of the tone

The optimism of the experts I gathered for this feature would appear to contradict the implied premise of a piece on failure. They believe in the resilience of an industry that builds new and behavior-changing functionality out of whatever platforms they've been given. And I have no reason to doubt their faith.

What they know from experience is that economies are built around the fulfillment of needs, and that people adapt technology to that end. The near-term failure of 5G, should it come, will have been precipitated by certain heads of state, along with some candidates for their replacement, who have little or zero compunction about playing with actual fire, if it means the world's attention stays on them. That's not so much a failure of the technology, or of the engineers or companies building it, as it is of the conditions of the world that supports it. Usually that's not a subject for ZDNet, unless and until it impacts the topics that are. Obviously, the solution to that situation is not technological.

The inspiration for 5G in the first place was not the need for faster or higher-bandwidth connectivity. The world's telcos, especially in emerging economies, cannot sustain the 4G and even 3G systems they currently maintain. They're too expensive, and their upkeep and overhead costs rise over time, particularly cooling. That's what Secretary Lew's comment implied: The decoupling of economic systems, even when supported by populist politics, comes with a cost.

My old friend E. Z. Million had a saying, "When your outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep will be your downfall."

Telcos' critical need is a network of radio towers that are small enough, and use low enough power, to be passively cooled. If a global 5G wireless standard will not be stable enough to address this need, something or someone else will. Either willfully or by default, countries' telcos will not, as the French MP put it, rely upon standards set by others. Those needs may be met by some industry standard to which countries are likely to affix the "5G" tag like a gold sticker. Or perhaps not. Because at some point, that country's version of the standard will be maintained by interests whose principal concern is not keeping costs low through globalization and cooperation.

That kind of a technology market sounds somewhat like a droning dial tone, which sounded the same throughout the 1960s, '70s, and the first half of the '80s -- a dry, unsatiated electronic wail. It stayed that way, for so long, for a reason: In the absence of a free market, there was no incentive, and thus no means, to change it.

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