Funding and protecting 5G networks are not the only concerns which have forced many governments to play a more active role in building a 5G infrastructure. Or why 5G is taking longer to implement in some places.
In the last decade, 5G has stirred up troublesome geopolitical issues — issues which are certain to determine the future of global data and communications.
By all accounts (market share, price/performance, technology, etc.), the leading 5G equipment maker today is Chinese state-sponsored Huawei Technologies.
If that name sounds familiar it should.
In 2012, the U.S. government banned the use of Huawei products over concerns the equipment could be used by the Chinese government to spy on sensitive commercial and government communication. It turns out, those concerns were justified. Since the time of the ban, the U.S. Justice Department has unsealed 23 comprehensive indictments against Huawei pertaining to fraud, theft of intellectual property, and obstruction of justice. In addition, Huawei was caught red-handed downloading sensitive government data back to mainland China from the headquarters of The African Union. Charges of similar breaches elsewhere have caused security experts to describe Huawei as a digital Trojan Horse — a dangerous technology designed to give China unlimited access to proprietary communications, power grids, defense systems, etc.
That said, there’s no argument as to whether countries which are furthest along in their deployment of 5G are currently leveraging Huawei’s technological lead. Or the lead of ZTE, the other Chinese stated-sponsored leader in 5G.
Since Huawei and ZTE’s closest competitors, Ericsson and Nokia, don’t come close in performance, this presents a real dilemma for the U.S. and other nations, such as Australia, which have banned the Chinese makers. These nations have been backed into a corner where their only choice is to buy 5G technology which is inferior.
This stand-off has caused experts in the know to warn of a coming Cold War. At one time a country’s allegiance could be determined by who they purchased weapons or sought security from. But today, the world may be dividing along the lines of those willing to be beholden to the Chinese for 5G technology in spite of the known security risks, and those who choose to fall behind rather than take that risk.
In the long run, the embargo by the U.S. may be necessary, but there is no question as to whether this has caused the U.S. to lose ground in the global 5G race every year since the 2012 ban. And no question as to whether U.S. tech leaders like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are being negatively impacted. Whether 5G marks the beginning of global Chinese technology dominance remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: doing business with a country which does not share compatible values or interests is tricky, and this will only get trickier as the 5G race heats up.
The political challenges 5G faces are by no means limited to strained U.S.-China relations. There are equally daunting local, regional, state and federal legal issues which must be addressed before 5G is available to consumers everywhere.
For example, the City of San Jose, California — located in the heart of Silicon Valley — is currently in the midst of a court case which has made them unable to activate thousands of installed 5G antennas.
In order to offset the costs of building expensive 5G networks the city struck an agreement with a commercial carrier to allow antennas to be installed on existing utility poles. Shortly after the antennas were up and running, the city learned the poles were the property of the public utility and therefore, paid for and owned by taxpayers. By law, any equipment added to taxpayer-paid utility poles must necessarily benefit all taxpayers. Since the for-profit carrier charges a fee for use of their cellular service, 5G would only be available to paid subscribers, not all taxpayers.
So, in spite of having thousands of antennas ready to deploy, the City of San Jose has been prohibited from activating the majority of them pending the court’s ruling. It remains to be seen whether the city can prove taxpayers benefit from things other than free service — benefits such as the ability to attract new businesses, conferences, added tourism, etc. And whether the court ruling will permit San Jose’s cost and risk sharing model to be replicated elsewhere.
In addition to funding, and political, legal and security concerns, there’s another reason 5G deployment has been slower than anticipated and why governments have become unwitting players. Here, I tread gently. Anytime a person states that there have been no studies on the impact massive volumes of millimeter waves could have on human health and the environment, they’re immediately pegged as a member of the lunatic fringe. Worse yet, they’re dismissed as ignorant and incompetent. After all, radio waves of all types pass through humans and the planet all day, every day. Since millimeter waves emit a significantly smaller amount of radiation in comparison to other waves, theoretically, they present no danger.
Yet, dare to point out that science makes a clear distinction between theoretical and proven, and be prepared to be attacked on all fronts: by chip makers, carriers, physicists, engineers, government agencies, and self-proclaimed experts. Similar to discussions on climate change and gun control, any hope of rational discourse gives way to zealousness. The conversation quickly descends into adjectives aimed at discrediting those who favor caution.
As a point of fact, there have been zero studies commissioned on the impact millimeter waves, in large numbers, could have on human health and the environment. Though it’s early to gauge the extent of the public’s concerns or whether those concerns will slow progress, it should be noted that Brussels, along with a handful of other cities have stopped building 5G networks until further research can be conducted. And recently, 180 scientists and doctors from 36 countries signed a petition appealing to the EU to put a temporary moratorium on 5G until research proves or disproves the technology is safe.
SLOW BUT CERTAIN
To sum up, 5G networks are both essential and inevitable. As we approach the limits of 4G cellular technology, every industrialized nation in the world is embracing the advantages 5G offers: speed, near-zero latency, connectivity, and lower power usage.
That said, we should be careful not to allow the momentum to sweep challenges which lie ahead under the rug. From funding, regulations, health, security, and geopolitical concerns to technical hurdles regarding short transmission distances and easy interference, the road to full 5G deployment is far from paved.
Neither should we treat the economic anomaly which occurred in the transition from 3G to 4G as if it were some spoiler. If 1,000 years of history is proven right, 5G networks will usher in an economic boom like no other. On the other hand, if, as some have suggested, we’ve crossed a threshold wherein more, faster data no longer translates to an economic upside, the impact in terms of revenue, jobs, etc., may be minimal. With so many factors at play, the future favors those who anticipate a long-term transition wherein, one-by-one, the obstacles to full deployment can be removed along the way.
This article is Part 4 of a series, "Everything You Need to Know About 5G." To read Part 1 — Click Here Now. To read Part 2 — Click Here Now. To read Part 3 — Click Here Now.
Rebecca D. Costa is an American sociobiologist and futurist. She is a world-renowned expert in the field of “fast adaptation” in complex environments. Costa’s work has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, SF Chronicle, The Guardian, etc. Her first book, "The Watchman’s Rattle A Radical New Theory of Collapse," was an international bestseller. Her follow-on book, titled "On the Verge," was released in 2017. For more information visit www.rebeccacosta.com. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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