In what is widely characterized as a “race” for technology dominance, fifth generation wireless networks are being deployed in Europe, Asia and North America. But the mammoth task of revamping the cellular landscape will likely take at least a decade—as well as trillions of dollars. In actuality, the “race to 5G” is more like a slog.
There are advantages to launching 5G services sooner rather than later, of course, but the value of 5G is not the infrastructure per se. The technological leaps will largely spring from the “intelligent” systems and immersive activities enabled by 5G’s blazing speeds, its unparalleled capacity and its ultra-low latency. Such innovation is America’s strategic advantage.
The United States leads the world in the launch of 5G commercial service, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. China is also aggressively pushing its state-owned telecom operators to “catch up and surpass” the United States. (Elsewhere in Asia, deployment is occurring rapidly, particularly in Japan and South Korea.) Europe lags both the United States and Asia.
By year’s end, 5G commercial service — albeit limited — is expected to be available in at least 18 countries. Analysts predict that the majority of deployments, including a denser array of antennae and base stations, new and upgraded towers, optical fiber rollout and redesigned “core” processing—will occur after 2020. But once achieved, 5G service will yield enormous benefits. A study commissioned by Qualcomm Inc. concluded that full 5G implementation by 2035 will generate as much as $3.5 trillion in revenue globally and support some 22 million jobs.
The 5G network in the United States is expected to reach 50 percent of mobile connections in 2025, covering 80 percent of the U.S. population, according to GMSA Intelligence. Among the most vexing barriers to deployment are the availability of spectrum — referring to the government-controlled radio frequencies on which wireless signals travel — and access to public infrastructure for siting the additional antennae equipment necessary to network 5G function.
The political nature of U.S. spectrum allocation (primarily public auctions for leasing) leads to years-long procedural wrangling. The Trump administration has directed federal agencies to cooperate with the Federal Communications Commission to free spectrum for 5G use, but not all departments are eager to relinquish their radio-frequency real estate. Indeed, the FCC has even had public run-ins with the Departments of Defense and Commerce over spectrum allotments.
Conversely, China’s centralized, authoritarian government has allocated spectrum licenses at an accelerated pace compared to the United States and Europe. It is also actively subsidizing Huawei, which supplies 50 percent of China’s wireless network equipment. Indeed, 5G network deployment features prominently in Beijing’s current five-year economic plan and the “Made in China 2025” industrial strategy.
But … communism does tend to undermine technological innovation. As noted by the MIT Technology Review, “How can researchers achieve breakthroughs when there is no free speech, limited freedom of inquiry, not even access to Google Scholar?”
Also problematic for the regime is the U.S. prohibition on sales of sensitive technology to Chinese firms, including Huawei. Heavily dependent on American technology, Huawei could face shortages of essential 5G components for its products. The prospect of additional restrictions in Europe and North America could narrow the revenue stream needed for 5G innovation.
To date, just 14 percent of 5G spectrum has been allocated across the European Union. The relatively slow network rollout is due to a variety of factors, including the European Union’s plodding bureaucracy and suffocating regulatory regime. Meanwhile, some cellular network operators there also lack ready access to capital because of a sharp decline in their valuations in recent years.
The high prices for spectrum in recent auctions have raised concerns that European telecom firms will be left short of the capital needed to deploy 5G infrastructure, and the costs of service necessary to cover outlays will prove prohibitive for many consumers. However, Europe does benefit from being home to Nokia (Finland) and Ericsson (Sweden) — among only a handful of 5G equipment suppliers worldwide. Both companies have secured multi-billion-dollar contracts with Verizon and AT&T — the two largest U.S. telecom companies, while third place T-Mobile has likewise contracted with Nokia and Ericsson for $3.5 billion each to build components for its 5G network.
The telecommunications market will undergo dramatic changes as 5G innovation drives new commercial and industrial applications to a much greater degree than previous generations of wireless technology. In the months and years to come, various countries will trade the lead in 5G deployment, but America’s entrepreneurial spirit — unless extinguished by continued expansion of the administrative state — will drive the creativity and ambition that are essential to technological leadership.
Diane Katz is the senior research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.