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.

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