If you believe the triumphalist messaging from U.S. president Donald Trump’s White House and from the U.S. telecommunications industry, the United States is racing neck and neck with China in a global competition to roll out speedy 5G mobile networks. But the U.S. military’s premier advisory board of academic researchers and private sector technologists has warned that China’s front-runner position means it will likely win much of the world’s business in deploying 5G infrastructure and services. With that in mind, it has advised that the United States would be wise to adopt a strategy akin to “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Unlike earlier generations of mobile networks based on voice and texting services, 5G networks could deliver connection speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second and enable smartphone owners to download high-definition movies in less than a second. Data transmissions with less than a millisecond of delay would also set the stage for new services that allow self-driving cars to make AI-powered decisions through near-instantaneous communication with cloud computing servers. The country that rolls out the first national 5G network could also dominate internationally by selling 5G equipment and services to other countries that have lagged behind.
“That country is currently not likely to be the United States,” said an April 2019 report issued by the U.S. Defense Innovation Board, a group of scientists and Silicon Valley leaders serving as advisers to the Pentagon.
The group describes China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States as the leading contenders in developing and deploying 5G networks, with European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and France forming a “second tier.” But China, they say, will likely enjoy a “first-mover advantage.”
That much seems clear despite plenty of hype and confusion in dueling claims about who was first to deploy 5G and what that means. Recent headlines have focused on deployments of non-standalone 5G—enhanced mobile broadband that piggybacks off of the existing 4G LTE networks and could enable a tenfold increase in download speeds for mobile devices. Major telecoms in the United States and elsewhere have begun deploying these non-standalone 5G services, which are more evolutionary than revolutionary—a fact that the Pentagon advisory board’s report emphasized by calling out 5G marketing claims:
Despite messaging from various marketing initiatives in the United States, very little U.S. territory has seen deployment of 5G infrastructure that can deliver 1 Gbps or even 100 megabit per second service at the edges of coverage. Whereas LTE deployment resulted in 10x end user speed improvement across large parts of the United States, carriers to date have not demonstrated deployment capability that would deliver high speeds to large parts of the U.S. population.
China’s first-mover advantage will come into play with the upcoming phase of 5G network deployment, according to a 2018 report by the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy headquartered in New York City. It’s part of China’s plan to establish commercial standalone 5G networks by 2020, which is at least several years ahead of the United States and other competing nations that have set 2025 as their target date.
That 5G rollout, which will require hefty investments in new infrastructure such as antennas and base stations, will enable some of the truly exciting applications and services that require near-instantaneous communications among possibly billions of new sensors and devices connected through the Internet of Things.
China has already made US $180 billion in capital expenditures for 5G deployment over the past five years, installing about 350,000 5G-operable base stations, which is nearly 10 times the number currently deployed in the United States. Beyond China’s shores, Chinese telecom giant Huawei has also shipped 70,000 base stations and signed 40 contracts to sell 5G equipment in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
China Telecom employees install a 5G base station at the company’s Lanzhou branch office, in Gansu province, on 21 February 2019.Photo: Zhang Tieliang/VCG/Getty Images
This head start will also give China an early lead in developing and deploying smarter cities, self-driving cars, and automated factories, says the Eurasia Group report. The opportunity to test new applications and use cases could in turn attract business from other countries that are looking to supply their own citizens with similar 5G-enabled applications and services.
That being said, the Eurasia Group expects U.S. companies to remain highly competitive and perhaps retain an edge in innovation over their Chinese counterparts when it comes to developing similar applications and services. What’s more, Chinese companies currently rely on a few U.S. companies that manufacture crucial hardware components for deploying 5G networks.
But the United States still faces a crucial decision at home that has huge consequences in a world already likely to lean toward China’s 5G leadership. It’s a fork-in-the-road choice between favoring either high frequencies or low frequencies for 5G networks—a spectrum availability decision that will greatly impact whether all those promises about 5G yielding faster download speeds and lower latency will be fulfilled.
The United States currently favors millimeter-wave (mmWave) transmission, with high frequencies between 30 and 300 GHz. The shorter wavelengths in this range make for narrower beams that boost both the resolution and security of data transmissions. But they come with significant downsides, including limited range and an inability to penetrate obstacles such as walls and human bodies.
The short-wavelength route would require U.S. telecoms to build a very dense—and expensive—network of 5G base stations throughout any city or other geographic area to ensure reliable connectivity. The Defense Innovation Board report also cast some doubt on whether U.S. telecoms can absorb the cost of installing the infrastructure necessary for a full mmWave network.
China has taken the opposite approach. It favors low-frequency transmission, primarily in the 3- and 4-GHz bands. This strategy enables Chinese telecoms to swiftly roll out broad 5G coverage with fewer base stations because the wavelengths in these bands are able to penetrate obstacles.
The Defense Innovation Board enlisted Google’s help in performing a field study pitting the mmWave configuration standard used in U.S. 5G testing against a sub-6-GHz configuration standard used in Chinese 5G deployment. The mmWave coverage would likely provide edge speeds of 100 megabits per second to less than 12 percent of the U.S. population, whereas the sub-6 approach would deliver 100-Mb/s transmission speeds to more than 57 percent of the population.
These images from the Defense Innovation Board show the difference in propagation between 28 gigahertz mmWave (left) and 3.4 gigahertz sub-6 deployments at the same pole height in flat areas of Los Angeles, Calif. Blue represents 100 Mb/s speed; red represents 1 Gb/s speed.Image: Defense Innovation Board
The mmWave approach gave gigabit-per-second transmission speeds to less than 4 percent of Internet users, whereas the sub-6 approach gave 21 percent of the population Gb/s coverage. The preliminary study did not even take into account possible blocking of mmWave signals by human bodies and vehicles, which would further reduce a network’s effectiveness.
Despite the sub-6-GHz setup’s advantages, U.S. telecoms and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) still seem to favor the mmWave approach. That’s largely because the U.S. government owns large chunks of the sub-6 spectrum and restricts commercial use of those bands. And it’s currently unclear whether the U.S. government will be willing to share or auction off even a sliver of it.
In most other countries, commercial access to the sub-6 spectrum isn’t impeded in this way. So, it’s reasonable to predict that China’s first-mover advantage could translate into most everyone else adopting its 5G equipment and services tailored for those low-frequency bands. If the United States continues to prioritize mmWave deployment, U.S. telecoms and tech companies would face an uphill battle in trying to sell 5G equipment and services abroad.
Dominance on the technology front also has geopolitical consequences. There are magnified security risks as national economies become heavily dependent upon 5G networks featuring networking equipment that may be studded with backdoors or other security vulnerabilities.
The prospect of a 5G world dominated by Chinese companies poses special concerns for the U.S. military, which maintains a global presence. U.S. military forces deployed overseas might find themselves sending transmissions across 5G networks that have Chinese equipment embedded throughout. “This would pose a serious threat to the security of DoD operations and networks going forward,” said the Defense Innovation Board report.
Citing national security concerns, the Trump administration has been urging U.S. allies to ban Chinese companies from supplying equipment to their 5G networks. In particular, the Chinese telecom Huawei has come under intense scrutiny for supposed links to Chinese state security, despite the company’s forceful and repeated denials. Several countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have already banned or severely restricted Huawei from participating in their build-outs of 5G networks.
The U.S. campaign to limit China’s 5G influence raises the risk of creating a bifurcation in the world’s 5G implementation. That 5G divide could impact costs for user and infrastructure equipment due to “lower economies of scale and higher transaction costs,” according to the Eurasia Group report.
Both the Eurasia Group and the Pentagon’s advisory board point out that Chinese equipment is frequently not just cheaper but also superior to that of Western rivals. The United States cannot even offer any major U.S. alternatives for certain wireless networking equipment in a market dominated by Huawei. And banning Huawei equipment would cost both time and money for many countries eager to deploy 5G networks—especially if they would need to remove Huawei equipment already installed in their mobile infrastructure.
Even staunch U.S. allies such as the U.K., France, Germany, and Poland have thus far held off on pronouncing blanket bans on Huawei equipment. In March, the European Commission pointedly ignored the U.S. call for a blanket ban despite requiring European Union countries to share data on 5G security risks.
So what is the United States to do in the face of the Chinese sub-6 approach likely becoming the global standard for broad area networks? The Pentagon’s advisory board recommends that the U.S. government pivot away from the mmWave approach and demonstrate that by taking the bare minimum initial step of requiring the U.S. Department of Defense to share some of its 500 MHz of space in the 4-GHz band.
The board also suggests that the United States encourage allies to adopt trade policies that use tariffs on goods from any country found to have backdoors or security vulnerabilities. This is a backhanded way of encouraging all companies to tighten up security on their products. The experts also recommend that the U.S. continue to ask allies to ban the use of equipment produced by Chinese state-owned businesses in their 5G network deployments.
But the most eye-catching recommendation is that the U.S. military must face facts: It has to learn to operate in a “post-Western” wireless ecosystem dominated by Chinese companies and assume that all network infrastructure will ultimately become vulnerable to cyberattacks. “Zero-trust” networks with multiple security checks before gaining access to information will need to become the Pentagon’s modus operandi. All military networks will need both added resiliency and added layers of redundancy.
The United States may not like it. But that’s what it’s going to take to make the best of living in China’s 5G world.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.