Some experts argue 5G will change the way we live forever, powering
a new data-driven industrial revolution
China realises that the advent of 5G is its chance to get out in
front for the first time in the development of wireless
Experts argue that 5G wireless technology will
change the way we live forever, powering a new data-driven industrial
revolution. Illustration: Marcelo Duhalde
This is the first part in a series by the SCMP analysing the likely impact of 5G
wireless technology on the way we live and work.
You know it must be
nothing short of transformational when Washington goes on the offensive over
Beijing getting ahead in a telecommunications standard.
But what is this
new 5G technology and why has it got the world’s two biggest economies at each
Let’s just say it’s a lot more important than allowing
you to download the latest high-definition episode of Game of Thrones on your
smartphone in seconds. According to some experts, 5G could change the way we
Simply put, 5G means faster internet connections with huge
capacity. 5G wireless networks will provide the connectivity backbone for a host
of industrial “Internet of Things” applications that work on big data, such as
AI-powered manufacturing and smart city processes and even the traffic
infrastructure for a world where driverless cars are the norm.
“5G is a
real revolution. Connectivity will become a platform and no longer a pipeline …
[making it] possible to get everything online all the time and all the
applications up into the cloud,” said Ken Hu, Huawei's rotating chairman at the
company's analyst summit this week.
“Eventually the technology will help
us to create a brand-new seamless experience between [the] online and offline
In China, for example, improved connectivity would enable the
quality health care services of urban areas to be better distributed to
far-flung rural areas. Moreover, 5G networks will also be able to support a
growing number of connected devices in everyday life, from fitness-tracking
watches to internet-linked televisions and smart speakers at home.
is king. [When companies] digitise their processes and transactions, they can
then derive more value from their data,” said Wilson Chow, head of global
technology, media and telecommunications at PwC. “5G will provide the backbone
for the proliferation and development of these digital journeys for many
With so much at stake, maybe it’s no surprise that China
and the US are now locked in a titanic struggle over leadership of the 5G race,
as billions of dollars of economic benefits will accrue to those who can stay
ahead of the pack.
The US, alarmed by China’s early lead in 5G
technologies and standards under national champions Huawei and ZTE, has spent
recent months urging allies such as the UK and Germany not to employ Chinese
technologies in its 5G networks as – according to Washington – this would
present a national security risk, while simultaneously fretting over its own
Meanwhile China, which has the world’s largest mobile
market by subscriber and network size, realises that the advent of 5G is its
chance to get out in front for the first time in the development of wireless
communications technology, an area that has previously been dominated by the US
5G has been identified in China’s 13th Five-Year Plan as a
“new area of growth”, and Shenzhen-based Huawei is currently the front runner in
the race to supply 5G gear to telecoms companies around the world.
knows it is lagging behind.
The faster 5G network coming soon.
A recent paper by the Defence Innovation Board, an independent federal advisory
committee of the US Department of Defence, said that “the leader of 5G stands to
gain hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue over the next decade, with
widespread job creation across the wireless technology sector.”
country that owns 5G will own many of these innovations and set standards for
the rest of the world … that country is currently not likely to be the United
States,” the paper concluded.
Broadly speaking, the applications of 5G
technology could be endless, turning the most mundane of devices smart and
translating everyday occurrences into quantifiable data.
with 5G, traffic management systems could become much smarter, with traffic
signals changing based on real-time traffic patterns monitored by a variety of
cameras and sensors.
Smart meters that measure water and electricity
usage will become much more widespread thanks to 5G’s ability to support
thousands of device connections at once.
Virtual and augmented reality,
technologies long talked about for their potential but which have been held back
by the capacity and latency [the delay before a transfer of data begins
following an instruction] of existing wireless networks, may finally have a shot
at going mainstream under 5G.
It some ways, 5G can be likened to how the
advent of electricity enabled industrial productivity on scales never before
seen. Except that in the coming revolution, the power behind production will be
data, not watts.
To be sure, 5G will need to undergo a reality check, and
operators will have to work out what services people are prepared to pay for.
5G antenna units with logos of China Mobile and
Huawei are seen in front of a National People’s Congress conference centre in
Luoyang, Henan province, on February 27. Photo: Reuters
“We talk about a lot of potential applications, but operators are still not
ready for that, there is no clear understanding yet of how to address the
opportunities,” said Gartner’s senior research director, Peter Liu. “Right now
there is still an understanding needed about what is hype and what can be
Meanwhile, the US and China are also seeking to harness 5G
technology to enhance their military prowess.
In November last year,
China established the 5G Technology Military-Civil Fusion Applications Industry
Alliance, including members such as ZTE, China Unicom and the China Aerospace
Science and Industry Corporation, which aims to develop both defence and
commercial 5G applications in the country.
“As a number of Chinese
defence academics and engineers have postulated, 5G could improve battlefield
communications with faster and more stable information transmission, increasing
the timeliness and integration of information,” wrote Elsa B. Kania, an adjunct
fellow with the technology and national security program at think tank Centre
for a New American Security.
The US military has also seen the potential
advantages 5G can offer in the field of battle.
In the paper by the
Defence Innovation Board, it is argued that a single 5G network could help the
Department of Defence promote “improved situational awareness and decision
making” that will strengthen nuclear command and control and communications,
while enabling new technologies like hypersonic weapons and hypersonic defences
to be deployed.
Huawei has found itself at the epicentre of this clash of
According to estimates, Huawei has a 28 per cent share of the
world’s telecoms market, and data from German firm IPlytics shows that Huawei is
the company with the most 5G standard essential patents, at 1,529, followed by
Finland’s Nokia at 1,397.
The US military has also seen the potential advantages 5G can offer in the field
In the paper by the Defence Innovation Board, it is argued
that a single 5G network could help the Department of Defence promote “improved
situational awareness and decision making” that will strengthen nuclear command
and control and communications, while enabling new technologies like hypersonic
weapons and hypersonic defences to be deployed.
Huawei has found itself
at the epicentre of this clash of the titans.
According to estimates,
Huawei has a 28 per cent share of the world’s telecoms market, and data from
German firm IPlytics shows that Huawei is the company with the most 5G standard
essential patents, at 1,529, followed by Finland’s Nokia at 1,397.
If China is able to set foundational infrastructure and standards for the world,
then future products will also be based off those specifications. Having the
benefit of patents in 5G technology and being a leader in standards would
translate into the ability to build an ecosystem of network providers, device
makers and application developers and create thousands of jobs in the process.
China’s push into 5G and Huawei’s dominance in the global market has made
the US uneasy, mostly over fears that Chinese equipment in networks would make
them easier to penetrate by China’s intelligence agencies.
Huawei for its
part has repeatedly and vehemently denied that it would acquiesce in any attempt
to compromise the security of its network gear to aid spying efforts by China.
The Defence Innovation Board noted that if China becomes the global leader
in supplying 5G infrastructure, there is risk of security vulnerabilities as the
US Department of Defence will probably have to operate on foreign networks
overseas that already contain Chinese components.
“In the current 5G
competition … neither the Department of Defence nor the United States writ large
is in a position to dictate the content and integration of the 5G supply chain,”
it said, adding that there is a possibility that the rest of the world will
accept Chinese products as “cheaper and superior”.
While the jury is
still out on who will control the 5G field, experts are mostly united on the
technology’s transformative potential.
“5G is a new platform for
innovation, with its massive capacity and removal of latency [delays in data
transfer] as barriers,” said Julian Gorman, the Asia-Pacific head of GSMA, a
trade body that represents mobile network operators worldwide.
sitting here looking at 5G through the eyes of someone who has only experienced
4G. But the next time we look at 5G through 5G glasses … it will change the way
we interact with each other and with machines.”