How US fell behind in race to 5G, & why banning Huawei might not help at all
Banning something that is already incredibly popular is harder than it looks.
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The race to 5G is the most dominant narrative for the tech face-off happening right now between the United States and China.
5G is basically touted as the next big leap in the high-speed internet era.
Economically, it is going to be a game changer as well, with experts predicting that 5G will contribute up to US$2.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years.
Even in current development, it is already reaching 20 times the speed of 4G.
5G is able to achieve speeds of up to 20GB per second, compared to 4G’s 1GB per second.
Basically, you can download movies even faster — in mere seconds.
One of the supposed casualties of that face-off has been Huawei.
Huawei is also coincidentally the frontrunner of the 5G race.
They are reportedly 18 months ahead of any of their closest competitors.
Which is where this current blacklisting comes into play.
U.S. officials have long declared Huawei a threat, and urged allies to refrain from using their network equipment.
This is due to the notion that Huawei will use these equipment to spy on the western world.
However, according to Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security Centre in England, the 5G network is no more likely to provide an outlet for spying than the current 4G infrastructure.
Regardless, the blacklisting was carried out.
One might be forgiven for thinking this ban would significantly derail the aforementioned 18-month headstart, giving a chance for American 5G frontrunners to take that number one spot.
But here’s the thing — that’s not at all how this works.
5G isn’t a wholly new entity.
Like most of other tech advances, these new leaps can be built by implementing 5G components to pre-existing 4G infrastructure.
So, who is the clear frontrunner in providing this infrastructure?
Unsurprisingly, it’s Huawei again.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Huawei had a 28 percent share of the global telecomm equipment market.
The company with the next highest share is Nokia, with 17 percent.
In fact, one of the reasons for the delay in the Trump ban was how much rural states would be affected by the potential blacklisting.
Not only is Huawei offering 5G equipment that is by most accounts cheaper and of better quality, they are also integral in the currently-implemented 4G infrastructure.
Which means that if countries do intend to tear down the Huawei infrastructure and start again from scratch, Tolaga Research estimates that a network replacement cycle takes about five to 10 years to complete.
That’s even more time wasted on rebuilding, and Huawei will in no way be out of the network anytime soon.
That is a long and, some might say, futile battle to kick Huawei out of the system.
So, how did a Chinese company that only started overseas expansion some 20 years ago completely outpace western powers in the next great technological leap?
In 2016, Google DeepMind created an artificial system, AlphaGo, that defeated a Go world champion.
Go is an abstract strategy board game, which is significantly more complex, and boasts approximately 300 times more possible moves than chess.
To give an example of just how complicated the game is, after the first two moves of a chess game, you are faced with 400 possible next moves.
Go gives you close to 130,000 moves.
AlphaGo’s victory was, therefore, quite the shock.
Ironically, although Google was understandably pleased with their machine’s performance against world-class competition, China was perhaps the most struck by this development.
Kai Fu-Lee, an Aritificial Intelligence (AI) expert, dubbed the Go victory, China’s sputnik moment.
According to a Wired article, 280 million people in China watched the broadcast.
In contrast here is what one of Barack Obama’s science and technology policy advisers had to say about that moment.
“In the White House, Terah Lyons, one of Barack Obama’s science and technology policy advisers, remembers her team cheering on the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Building. “We saw it as a win for technology,” she says. “The next day the rest of the White House forgot about it.”
While this might not be the 5G race we were talking about, this view of tech, and the timeframe it operates in, is quite telling.
The fundamental difference in how the two countries view this technological leap is not limited to administrations either.
While the Trump administration recently launched an AI initiative, their position on AI wasn’t always this focused.
Trump’s recent focus on AI was mostly spurred by the Pentagon.
And as recently as June 2018, administration members appeared to be taken by Henry Kissinger’s article proclaiming AI as a potential trigger to end the era of Enlightenment.
This despite the scientific community dismissing Kissinger’s comments as sweeping and uninformed.
These advancements have, of course, resulted in some ethically questionable steps as well.
One of the more pertinent criticisms being aimed at the technologically-enhanced social credit system.
Through all this though, the scope of their vision has been remarkably consistent.
Despite the unprecedented Internet speed, and rapid advancements the race will eventually lead to, the race itself is more a marathon than a sprint.
A Deloitte report predicts that even by 2025, no country would have secured a majority of their population as 5G users.
“This means that 5G will likely still be a relatively niche technology even in 2025, with its forecast 1.2 billion connections making up only 14 percent of the total number of mobile non-IoT connections worldwide.”
Which might explain Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei’s quiet confidence that this ban will not affect their grand plan that much.
According to transcripts from state-run media, Ren said: “The current practice of US politicians underestimates our strength.”
He also said: “Huawei’s 5G will absolutely not be affected. In terms of 5G technologies, others won’t be able to catch up with Huawei in two or three years.”
Image by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images