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U.S. Takes Third Place in Race for 5G Wireless, China in the Lead

A new study shows China and South Korea most prepared for deployment of 5G, or fifth generation wireless networks, followed by the United States and Japan
AFP/Pau Barrena

A new report from telecommunications research firm Analysys Mason judges the United States to be in third place for the race to establish a nationwide 5G wireless network, lagging behind China and South Korea but just ahead of Japan.

Analysys Mason sees a tight race, with each of the leading competitors bringing different advantages to the table. China is ahead by a nose thanks to “proactive government policies and industry momentum,” while the United States has the leading private wireless industry in the world, and is close to commercial deployment of 5G networking.

Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of U.S. wireless industry group CTIA, expressed confidence that America would “leapfrog China because key leaders in the Administration, on Capitol Hill, and at the FCC are focused on the reforms needed to win the race.”

However, Baker warned that the U.S. “will not get a second chance to win the global 5G race.”

China-watchers had an interesting day on Tuesday. Just hours after announcing it was the first Chinese vendor to pass the core networking tests for 5G, Huawei Chairman Eric Xu seemed to downplay the significance of the new technology, essentially dismissing it as a marginal improvement over 4G networks that would provide little material benefit to consumers.

“Pessimism about 5G has been growing behind the scenes in the mobile industry but Huawei is the first large infrastructure company to state it explicitly,” telecom analyst Ben Stanton told the Financial Times. “The reality is that 5G will be incredibly expensive for operators to deploy, requiring tens of thousands of new base stations per country. And the industry is yet to uncover a killer-use case for the 5G network.”

Stanton echoed a point made by Xu that 5G does not really have a “use case” or “killer application” that would justify the expense of upgrading on a massive scale. Even the much-touted next-generation miracle of self-driving automobiles can make do with 4G speeds for Internet access.

Skeptical analysts portray 5G as a self-fulfilling technological prophecy, something every corporation and government must invest in because no one wants to fall behind. One also gets the impression from cagey public relations announcements that hyper-competitive telecom companies do not want to give away precisely what they have in mind for 5G until they are ready to roll it out.

Interestingly, Analysys Mason cites research indicating American leadership in 4G networks brought enormous benefits, adding $100 billion to the national GDP and increasing wireless industry jobs by 84 percent. On the other hand, the Financial Times notes some grumbling from the United Kingdom that 4G was not quite the cash cow it was touted as. One way to resolve that conflict is to posit that leadership is vital when leaping to a new generation of networking technology.

Another explanation is that fully developed infrastructure and a host of secondary providers ready to take advantage of dramatically increased bandwidth is crucial. First commercial clients, and then users in the individual market, must be dazzled by what they can do with 5G on Day One before they sink big money into an upgrade. This could be the key to Meredith Attwell Baker’s prediction that the U.S. is poised to leap ahead of China, as American companies develop a constellation of attractive applications for 5G that drive massive sales and investment.

A fully operational 5G network will be hundreds of times faster and more efficient than the blazing-fast 4G networks of today, with more reliable connections and improved data security. One of its security advantages is that more bandwidth can be set aside for data security measures without impacting the user experience. That is one reason some analysts dispute the contention that 4G is adequate for self-driving cars, as they will require both rock-solid high-speed network communications and top-shelf security.

Peak use surges should be less noticeable under 5G. More bandwidth will be available to consumers at more competitive pricing. Local networks should be able to communicate with each other more easily, creating a constellation of “Internet of Things” smart devices around each user.

The elimination of network latency—the gap between a device requesting information and the response flowing in—should make long-anticipated applications such as remote surgery with virtual-reality equipment possible. The strange new science of haptic feedback will make the Internet tactile – that is, capable of transmitting vibrations and other physical sensations in real time to wireless devices.

The economic benefits of 5G are forecast to include $533 billion added to the U.S. gross domestic product and $1.2 trillion in consumer benefits, several times the value 4G networking provided. The cell phone industry believes it will be revitalized by new networking technology, as it is growing more difficult to sell new phones that offer only incremental improvements to the user experience under 4G networking. There are fears that surging demand for wireless networking will run into the limitations of 4G soon and choke off growth in the market.

Jamal Carnette at the Motley Fool predicted in January that Republican tax cuts would give 5G a vital shot in the arm, just as the global competition goes into the home stretch:

The Republican tax bill should lead to faster 5G adoption overall. Lowering the rate on one of the highest-taxed industries will immediately make telecommunications companies more profitable and allow lower break-even rates for projects. Verizon and AT&T have effective tax rates of 33.5% and 32.5%, respectively, nearly double the average effective rate of 18.6%. It’s no wonder AT&T gave out one-time $1,000 bonuses in response to the bill’s passage.

By nearly universal agreement, the remaining hurdle is to update outmoded state and federal regulations that can make nationwide 5G a reality. A dozen or so major cities could have 5G networks by the end of the year, but some of its most exciting applications can only be realized when adoption is widespread and the new high-speed, low-latency network spreads from coast to coast.

The slow pace of auctions for 5G spectrum has been cited as a stumbling block. On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to hold the first auction for some 6,000 licenses in November.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said it was “troubling” that countries like South Korea, Germany, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Romania announced plans for 5G auctions ahead of the United States.

“Today, thankfully, this agency takes steps to put ourselves back in the running. I’m glad my colleagues are ready to get back on track. Today we schedule our first 5G auction and finally get out of the starting gate,” she said.

“It’s important to mention that we will be able to commence spectrum auctions later this year because of recent legislative action,” added FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “I’m grateful to Congress for passing, and the President for signing, legislation fixing a technical problem involving upfront payments by auction bidders for spectrum.”

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