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New China Unicom 5G equipment in Haikou, Hainan Province. Photo: Visual China Group/Getty

China switched on a massive 5G network Friday, bringing 50 cities online in one of the largest-ever single rollouts of the super-fast mobile networks.

Why it matters: Right now, this means some Chinese smartphone users can access super-fast internet. But in the long run, experts worry the deployment could help China vault past the U.S. not only in the critical 5G technology itself but also in the new applications it's expected to support.

The big picture: If AI and quantum computing are driving the U.S.–China tech competition, 5G networking is close behind.

  • Yes, it allows for faster Netflix streaming or video game downloading, but it also enables quicker decision-making for robots, or easier communication with dispersed military units or drones.
  • The U.S. and Europe have some consumer 5G networks up and running already, but they're considerably more limited in scope.

"This launch demonstrates the effectiveness of China’s massive government push to 5G," says Paul Scharre, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

  • The U.S., which lags in some facets of 5G networking but maintains an advantage in the fundamental technologies that back it up, has hit Chinese networking giant Huawei with bans and sanctions.
  • Scharre says the U.S. government also needs to actively promote homegrown U.S. competition in 5G, where Huawei has dominated until now.
  • The early Chinese launch could help Huawei continue commanding the international market.

5G is seen as both an economic multiplier in addition to a potential military tool, which means a wider rollout could pump new life into industries that depend on wireless communication — which today is nearly every one.

  • "If 5G is so revolutionary that it unlocks incredible new kinds of economic growth and tech development, then a slower rollout in the U.S. could harm our competitiveness and could hollow out tech companies," says Bateman of the Carnegie Endowment.

What's next: This week President Trump said the U.S. would cooperate with "like-minded nations" on developing 5G and has urged allies to swear off Huawei equipment, Reuters reports.

Go deeper

DOJ watchdog to probe whether officials sought to alter election results

Former President Donald Trump and former First Lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 20. Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The Justice Department's inspector general will investigate whether any current or former DOJ officials "engaged in an improper attempt to have DOJ seek to alter the outcome" of the 2020 election, the agency announced Monday.

Driving the news: The investigation comes in the wake of a New York Times report that alleged that Jeffrey Clark, the head of DOJ's civil division, had plotted with President Trump to oust acting Attorney General Jeffery Rosen in a scheme to overturn the election results in Georgia.

57 mins ago - Podcasts

Google's chief health officer Karen DeSalvo on vaccinating America

Google on Monday became the latest Big Tech company to get involved with COVID-19 vaccinations. Not just by doing things like incorporating vaccination sites into its maps, but by helping to turn some of its offices and parking lots into vaccination sites.

Axios Re:Cap goes deeper into what Google is doing, and why now, with Dr. Karen DeSalvo, Google's chief health officer who previously worked at HHS and as health commissioner for New Orleans.

Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.