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Opinion | Elizabeth Woyke

The complicated race for 5G

(Adobe)

New headlines pop up daily about the East-West fight to spearhead the launch of the next generation of cellular connectivity.

The attention isn’t surprising. Though 5G may seem like just another “G” after 3G and 4G, the telecommunications industry designed it to be far more useful. Besides making downloads to our smartphones dozens of times faster (from approximately 50 megabits per second to more than a gigabit), 5G will reduce processing delays to as little as a millisecond and efficiently connect billions of machines to the ever-growing “Internet of Things.”

Once 5G is widely available (probably sometime after 2020) it could alter our lives by enabling autonomous vehicles to communicate with each other, cities to monitor air quality and noise via street-level sensors, and events to be broadcast in virtual or augmented reality on the go.

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No wonder the United States and China, along with South Korea and Japan, are battling to gain first-mover advantage with this new technology.

But most of the “race to 5G” articles and reports miss an important point: The United States and China are pursuing such different paths that it’s almost impossible to say which is ahead or behind.

Not only is the United States following a free-market approach while China organizes large-scale coordinated launches, each country is introducing different versions of 5G, with the United States choosing one that’s built on top of existing 4G LTE networks and China choosing one that operates more independently.

The term “5G” refers to a set of technologies — from radios and antennae to chipsets — that meet specifications set by the telecom industry. Mobile operators and device makers formulate these specifications so that your cell service will work seamlessly, no matter where you are or what device you’re using.

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Prior to 5G, mobile operators had to create completely separate networks, with all-new base stations, when they transitioned from one cellular generation to the next. However, 5G has a mode called “non-standalone,” sometimes described as an “intermediate step,” which essentially lets carriers layer 5G technology on top of 4G to boost data rates.

Most mobile operators — including AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint — are choosing this option because it lets them deploy 5G quickly while giving consumers faster mobile broadband. These operators will upgrade to “standalone” 5G, which supports the technology’s full capabilities, later.

In contrast, China’s three wireless carriers plan to begin with standalone 5G. Though it is more expensive, they have said it will let them offer a greater number of new services from the start.

Chinese operators can select the standalone option because they’re not as profit-driven as American carriers. The central government is their largest investor and has made clear that Chinese leadership in 5G — not revenue — is the current priority.

The distinction between standalone and non-standalone 5G might seem trivial, but the technology’s more whiz-bang promises, such as always-aware autonomous vehicles and smart cities, rely on features that are part of the standalone mode. Want highly reliable real-time communication between devices, especially ones like cars that have never been online before? You’ll need standalone 5G — ideally, available wherever you plan to drive.

That’s why the race to 5G should take into account not only which country deploys standalone 5G first, but also how broadly.

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China is likely to take an early lead in that contest since its operators plan to launch standalone service across dozens of cities in 2020.

American carriers haven’t disclosed when they’ll make the jump to standalone 5G, but it won’t happen until after they roll out non-standalone technology. None of them have done so at great scale yet.

Of course, the real prize isn’t activating a bunch of 5G networks first. It’s being able to develop compelling apps (like Instagram, Snapchat, and Uber) that will run on top of 5G, sell those apps worldwide, and mine the data that’s generated.

Countries that deploy new mobile technologies early tend to reap such benefits, but access to skilled workers and venture capital, among other factors, will also determine who wins in the 5G era.

It’s another reason why the race to 5G is far more complicated than it seems.


Elizabeth Woyke is a freelance journalist and the author of “The Smartphone: Anatomy of an Industry.”