At the 2019 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the other week, all the talk was all about 5G, the Newest New Thing in mobile communication technology. If at this stage your eyes begin to glaze over, then you have my sympathy. But stay tuned: this stuff is more intriguing than you might think. And aspects of it are deeply mysterious.
First, some basics. Like most technologies, mobile communications goes in “generations”. At the moment, we are supposedly in the fourth generation – which is why you sometimes see “4G” next to the network signal icon on your phone. I say “supposedly”, because if you live outside a major conurbation, you are more likely to see “3G”, which means that you are stuck in the previous generation, despite the fact that the industry likes to pretend that 4G is ubiquitous.
The basic idea behind these generational shifts is that things get steadily better for consumers in terms of bandwidth, speed and connection quality. 5G promises vast improvements in terms of high data rates, reduced latency (ie, lag), energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity, and massive device connectivity. Just considering data rates, the best that 4G can do at the moment is about 14mbps (megabits per second). Experiments by Verizon in the US suggest that 5G could do between 30 and 50 times better – downloading a complete movie in 15 seconds, compared with six minutes on 4G. A bigger argument for 5G is not speed, however, but capacity: current mobile technology cannot handle the communications needs of a world with billions of IoT (Internet of Things) devices.
A mobile network has two main components: a hard-wired core consisting of a network of base-stations (cell towers) connected by fibre-optic links; and radio links between the towers and consumers’ devices – the so-called “air interface”. Each generational change has required changes to both components, and 5G will be no different, though the upgrades will be more significant and more difficult to implement. The air interface, in particular, will be much more challenging because it will mean that phones have to communicate with base stations using much higher radio frequencies. (Yes, your phone is a radio transmitter.) The good news is that these frequencies enable huge improvements in speed. The bad news is that the signals don’t travel as far as current frequencies do – tens of metres compared with kilometres for 4G signals. This implies the need to install hundreds of thousands of new base stations to ensure meaningful coverage.
5G will therefore require eye-watering levels of investment in new kit by the network operators. The big question is: who makes the kit? The answer is a very select group of companies – Nokia, Ericsson, DoCoMo, Samsung, ZTE and Huawei. Things get interesting when we note their countries of origin – respectively, Finland, Sweden, Japan, Japan, China, China.
The dominant company in the market at the moment is Huawei, a $100bn giant which is the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment and its second largest smartphone maker. In the normal course of events, therefore, we would expect that the core networks of western mobile operators would have a lot of its kit in them. And initially, that’s what looked like happening. But in recent months someone has pressed the pause button.
The prime mover in this is the US, which has banned government agencies from using Huawei (and ZTE) equipment and called on its allies to do the same. The grounds for this are national security concerns about hidden “backdoors”: it would be risky to have a company so close to the Chinese government building key parts of American critical infrastructure. Last week Huawei filed a lawsuit against the US government over the ban. New Zealand and Australia have obligingly complied with the ban, blocking the use of Huawei’s equipment in 5G networks. And last December BT announced that it was even removing Huawei kit from parts of its 4G network.
Other countries – notably Japan and Germany – have proved less compliant; the German Data Commissioner was even tactless enough to point out that “the US itself once made sure that backdoor doors were built into Cisco hardware”.
The UK’s position is interestingly enigmatic: the National Cyber Security Centre (part of GCHQ) says that any risk posed by involving Huawei’s technology in UK telecoms projects can be “managed”. Its advice to UK mobile operators boils down to this: keep Huawei out of the core of your 5G networks, but it’s OK to use its equipment at phone masts as part of the mix of suppliers. Which leads one to wonder if even GCHQ has been leant on by Liam Fox, the secretary of state for international trade. After all, he might say, this is no time to be annoying the Chinese.
What I’m reading
The House That Spied on Me
Gizmodo reporter Kashmir Hill tested life in a “smart” home by adding numerous networked devices to her apartment. Her conclusion: “Smart homes are dumb.” Amen.
Online debate doesn’t have to be toxic
Kialo is a platform designed to foster reasoned deliberation.
No, data is not the new oil
Nice contrarian essay on Wired by a former Facebook employee.