The Geopolitics of 5G: China vs U.S

5G is what will make driverless cars, smart cities, and other large-scale applications of connected devices feasible on a commercial scale.

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Base station antenna for mobile communication, made in the form of a 5G symbol, on the roof of the building.

by Paul Triolo and Kevin Allison

  • China will likely gain some first-mover advantage in 5G as it moves toward commercial-scale deployment of its domestic 5G network in 2020.
  • Efforts by the US and like-minded allies to exclude Chinese networking equipment suppliers from Western and allied 5G networks will continue, with the US-China trade and technology confrontation showing little sign of easing and potential national security risks posed by Chinese hardware increasingly dominating policy debates.
  • Alongside the political fight over the 5G network itself, the US and China are competing to develop innovative technology applications that will run on top of deployed 5G networks.

The global race to install next-generation 5G mobile networks is already underway and will be one of the most geopolitically significant technology projects ever undertaken.

5G’s high data speeds and other revolutionary features will make economy-changing technology applications such as driverless cars, smart cities, and advanced factory automation feasible on a commercial scale for the first time.

This report, The Geopolitics of 5G by Eurasia Group’s Geo-technology practice provides a comprehensive analysis of the political forces that will influence the creation of 5G standards and deployment in key markets.

It addresses how the political struggle over 5G and the technologies and services that will be built on top of the new networks will shape the competition for 21st-century dominance between the world’s leading technology superpowers, the US and China.

It also assesses the difficult choices that third countries will face to determine their own 5G strategies amid an ongoing confrontation between Washington and Beijing over technology and trade.

Much of the public discussion of 5G has centred on its vastly improved data speeds. Next-generation mobile networks will stream data about 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks, making the idea of “downloading” even very large files, such as high-definition feature films, largely obsolete.

But unlike previous generations of networks, which were built with consumer voice and data services in mind, 5G will also enable high-capacity and ultra-low latency communications.

These capabilities, which will be rolled out for the first time with 5G, will dramatically enhance the performance of mobile data networks by enabling new types of machine-to-machine communication, paving the way for next-generation digital applications that require highly reliable, near-instantaneous access to massive amounts of data.

5G is what will make driverless cars, smart cities, and other large-scale applications of connected devices feasible on a commercial scale.

Connected car
Connected car. logolord / Shutterstock.com

5G’s integral role in these transformational technologies means that to a much greater extent than with 4G, the development and deployment of the next-generation network is being influenced by political concerns, even as information and communications technology companies, firms in affected sectors such as manufacturing and automobiles, and entire national industries jockey for position in the emerging ecosystem.

Specifically, as the trade and technology confrontation between the US and China has steadily escalated over the past year, driven by US economic and national security concerns and by China’s ambitious industrial, technological, and economic development goals, every major issue associated with 5G networks has become politicized.

Formerly dry, technical subjects such as standards-setting and spectrum allocation for 5G networks, the location of supply chains, how to protect the next generation of mobile data networks from cyber threats, and which companies build 5G infrastructure and handsets in which countries have acquired new importance.

The decisions governments and industry players make about when and how to build their 5G networks will have significant consequences, both for how the next phase of the digital revolution unfolds in the US, China, and beyond and, potentially, for the long-term balance of global power.

This white paper offers a framework for understanding the underappreciated political dimensions of this critical technology shift.

  • Paul Triolo is Practice Head, Geo-technology, and Kevin Allison Director, Geo-technology at Eurasia Group

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