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The global race for 5G

Illustration: Sarah Grillo, Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The advent of 5G has turned into a serious geopolitical fight — actually, two.

Why it matters: Being first brings the opportunity to take the lead with the kinds of never-before-possible apps that exploit a new generation of network capabilities. For example, in being first with 4G, the U.S. was able to lead the way with services like Uber and Snapchat.

Fight #1: The race to get 5G networks up and running.

  • It's a three-way game right now among the U.S., China, and South Korea.
  • Different studies predict different winners depending on what they measure —first to launch, first to achieve broad coverage, and so on.
  • The U.S. is set to have initial 5G smartphone service next year with some very early commercial launches for mobile broadband this year.
  • While the U.S. may be technically first with 5G in a few places, China is spending significantly more and will likely be first with 5G en masse.
  • Some European carriers have been slower to move.

Fight #2: The competition over whose technology will power the networks.

  • U.S. security concerns about Chinese equipment have loomed large, and Huawei is one of the major suppliers.
  • As it has in the past, the U.S. won't allow Huawei to supply gear to major U.S. telecom firms, favoring European players Ericsson and Nokia (as well as Korea's Samsung).
  • These concerns that prompted some U.S. officials to ponder earlier this year whether the country needed to nationalize the 5G effort, though that idea was flawed and faded fast.
  • Worries about Chinese influence over 5G is a big reason why the Trump administration blocked Broadcom's attempt to purchase Qualcomm.

Be smart: The U.S. has no major cellular network equipment makers. Chipmaker Qualcomm is the biggest American player in the underlying 5G technology.

What they're saying: "I don't want the United States to win just so we can wave the flag saying we're number one," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told Axios. Past winners of network races have "reaped a disproportionate amount of the benefits for their citizens."

  • A study commissioned by the cell phone trade group CTIA estimated that U.S. companies won $125 billion in revenue by leading in 4G.

Go deeper: Why being first in 5g matters (WSJ)