5G With An Espionage Subplot

The 5G wireless technology now being introduced by phone companies promises to bring a world of innovations to mobile service — from connected appliances to self-driving cars — just as cable transformed TV generations ago with hundreds of new channels. The first big upgrade to the world’s mobile-phone networks in a decade also promises to bring a new global round of technology competition. The race to build 5G overlaps with arguments over its security that have pitted the U.S. against China and have raised tensions in the industry, to the dismay of telecom executives who fear the rollout could be delayed.

1. What’s 5G?

The name stands for fifth-generation mobile networks or fifth-generation wireless systems. 5G is the successor to 4G, the current top-of-the-line network technology first introduced commercially in 2009. The new service could end up being 100 times faster than its predecessor, with data speeds reaching 10 gigabits per second. That would allow consumers to download a full-length high-definition movie in seconds. Part of that speed comes from an architecture that processes some data locally, without having to pass everything back through the core network. 5G also offers more radio frequency bandwidth, which is needed to accommodate the “internet of things” — the ballooning number of linked products, from smart refrigerators to traffic lights to dog collars, that will be sending and receiving data.

2. Is it in use yet?

It’s early days. South Korea switched on nationwide 5G networks in April and is expected to achieve top speed by year’s end, with China and Japan not far behind. U.S. carriers have begun limited service: Verizon Communications Inc. is targeting 30 cities by the end of the year, while AT&T Inc. vows to have 5G available nationwide by the middle of 2020. British carriers plan limited 5G services in 2019, while Germany wants the technology to underpin efforts to push its industries to catch up with their peers in digital transformation. Elsewhere in Europe, some operators are questioning the business case for an all-out push to 5G.

Your Neighborhood Network. 5G systems will save time by handling some data locally. Here’s how that can work:

3. When will 5G be the new normal?

Not for a while. Even if you live in one of the 17 countries where carriers are already rolling out 5G services, it will be a couple of years at least before the geographic reach will be great enough to let you use your 5G phone without relying on current 4G or even 3G wireless networks much of the time. 5G phones are coming from Samsung, Huawei, ZTE, LG, Lenovo and OnePlus. Apple Inc. isn’t likely to offer a 5G-compatible iPhone until 2020 at the earliest, which could cost it market share, especially in China. And 5G’s rollout could be delayed by the U.S.-China clash over security.

4. What are the security worries?

Some relate to the new network’s expected ubiquity. 5G isn’t necessarily easier to hack than its predecessors, but it will connect many more devices, so protection from malign actors becomes a larger concern. The current conflict centres on China’s Huawei Technologies Co., the world’s largest producer of telecom equipment. The U.S. and some other nations fret that Chinese 5G equipment, chips and software could be outfitted to spy on customers — a kind of Trojan horse into the world’s information infrastructure — although the allegations never been proven.

5. What’s the debate about Huawei?

Many phone companies favour Huawei’s networking and telecommunication equipment for its technological edge and low cost. But the U.S. wants to keep the company away from 5G. In May 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump moved to curb Huawei’s ability to sell equipment in the U.S. and, more significantly, to buy parts from U.S. suppliers. The U.S. has also lobbied other countries to shun the company, with mixed results. Australia last year banned Huawei and rival ZTE Corp. from supplying 5G equipment to its telecom operators, while European countries are seeking a middle ground. German authorities are proposing tighter security rules for data networks; the U.K. is planning closer oversight of the vendor’s systems, and France plans to put 5G equipment through tests that would be tantamount to asking suppliers to hand over their industrial secrets. Concerns are rising in the industry that if Trump hampers Huawei’s ability to build 5G networks, it could affect the sales of 5G-related equipment and services by other companies around the world.

6. Are there other issues with 5G?

Some critics warn that 5G’s pervasiveness could create vulnerabilities in public infrastructure and among the billions of chips, sensors, cameras and appliances that are expected to be interconnected. By 2024, the amount of data carried by mobile networks will be five times greater than today, and 5G networks will cover more than 40% of the world’s population, according to Ericsson AB, the Swedish maker of wireless equipment. It estimates that more than 22 billion gadgets will be connected to the internet of things by 2024.

Credits: Ian King and Scott Moritz for Bloomberg, 29 October 2019. With assistance by Sohee Kim, Thomas Seal, Peter Elstrom, and Grant Clark.