Evolution of 5G Will Likely Not Favor China

In the passage of the commentary quoted below “RAN equipment” stands for “radio access network equipment” which is key hardware in the latest 5G broadband technology.

(p. C3) Huawei’s first generation of 5G RAN base stations is a modified version of the older 4G infrastructure that yields faster speeds. The ultimate promise of 5G is an ubiquitous network customized to user needs. Trillions of devices and applications—known as the Internet of Things—using 5G technology will offer new solutions for everything from autonomous vehicles to industrial production management to remote surgery. But the drivers of 5G’s evolution will be semiconductors, software systems and cloud computing—areas in which the U.S., not Huawei or any other Chinese company, is the world leader.

Instead of being intimidated by Huawei, U.S. foreign policy makers should recognize the Chinese company’s situation, which is akin to the dominance that IBM enjoyed during the age of mainframe computing. IBM’s massive scale and proprietary standards and software made it hard for competitors to match its offerings. Only in the 1970s and ’80s, when Japan massively subsidized new competitors like NEC, did IBM falter. But the true decline of IBM and its Japanese competitors came with the rise of the internet. The web’s transparent standards enabled many new firms to “plug and play.” Semiconductors, software and desktop computing eventually led to the apps on your smartphone at a fraction of the cost of such functions 30 years ago.

Today, 5G is at a similar moment. A new generation of technological standards for 5G would allow specialist suppliers—like the Microsofts and Intels of the internet era—to compete against Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung. Control via the old RAN infrastructure will be diminished by control via cloud computing and software, which plays to a key U.S. strength. Introducing these standards will take concerted action from U.S. firms, along with targeted U.S. government support, such as the adoption of procurement requirements to embody these new rules.

For the full commentary, see:

Peter Cowhey and Susan Shirk. “The Danger of Exaggerating China’s Technological Prowess.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Jan 9, 2021): C3.

(Note: the first ellipsis is added; the second and third are in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 8, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The commentary quoted above is related to the report:

Crowley, Peter, Chair. “Meeting the China Challenge: A New American Strategy for Technology Competition.” San Diego, CA: UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, Nov. 16, 2020.

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