Trump’s rush to build a national 5G network may backfire, give China the technological edge

The programme drawn up by US President Donald Trump’s national security team could backfire and slow down 5G deployment in America, analysts said

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 8:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 11:43pm

A plan by US President Donald Trump’s national security team to build a government-owned 5G network, designed to counter the threat of China spying on calls, is seen as reflecting the mistrust by Washington towards Chinese hi-tech capabilities.

Some analysts, however, expect that plan to backfire on the US and slow down the country’s deployment of the latest advance in mobile technology.

That programme to develop a centralised nationwide 5G mobile network within three years was first reported by US news site Axios, which cited documents from a senior National Security Council official.

In a separate report, Reuters confirmed the plan from a senior administration official who said it was “six to eight months away from being considered by the president himself”.

That 5G plan would see the federal government take over such infrastructure roll-out over the next few years from US mobile carriers AT&T, Verizon Communications and T-Mobile.

It also suggested that the US would be able to establish a secure wireless platform for emerging technologies, such as autonomous driving and virtual reality.

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“In terms of technology, the US is worried that China might have the competitive edge [in 5G],” said He Weiwen, a senior fellow at independent think tank the Centre for China and Globalisation. “The fact the [telecommunications] industry development is supported by the government has also caused unease.”

The Trump administration’s 5G plan comes on the heels of the scuttled smartphone distribution deal in the US between Huawei Technologies and AT&T because of US security concerns.

Chinese telecommunications equipment makers Huawei and ZTE Corp have already been shut out of the lucrative carrier network market in the US because of security worries. China-US ties may further get strained if Trump’s 5G plan moves forward.

Other analysts see irony in the Trump administration’s plan for a nationalised 5G network, which they expect to create more problems for the US telecommunications industry if it pushes through. That could ultimately benefit China’s own 5G development initiatives.

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Edison Lee, an equity analyst at Jefferies, said that plan “will only spark new debate in the US, which would give China even more advantage in its goal to become a leader in 5G”.

“From the standpoint of consumers, the plan may lead to lower cost of services because the operators can save on capital expenditure,” Lee said. “I think US consumers will have a lot of questions to ask.”

He also said certain US mobile network operators have already spent billions of dollars in buying mobile spectrum in the 600-megahertz frequency band for use in launching 5G services.

Apart from providing faster connectivity and ubiquitous coverage, 5G is expected to serve as the wireless platform to support driverless cars, smart transport systems, cloud computing and other businesses yet to be developed.

Future 5G mobile services are expected to support: a million connected devices per square kilometre; 1 millisecond latency, or the amount of time a packet of data takes to get from one point to another; higher energy and mobile spectrum efficiency; and a peak data download rate of up to 20 gigabits per second.

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The international authorities overseeing the creation of a universal 5G standard are expected to release the initial specification this year and the final phase in 2019, paving the way for wide commercial deployment of 5G services by 2020.

With discussions still underway, the plan by Trump’s national security team goes against the grain of industry efforts to draw up a universal 5G mobile standard.

“US telecoms providers are already working on the deployment of 5G, and all Trump would achieve with such a plan would be to antagonise those providers and negatively impact the US mobile telecommunications market,” said Paul Haswell, a partner at international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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Building a centralised and nationwide 5G network would involve numerous discussions regarding impact on market mechanism and government expenditure, according to Kelly Hsieh, a research director at consultancy TrendForce. “It may take long time before such an option can turn into a proposal that can be passed,” Hsieh said.

Huawei and ZTE are currently leading the development and commercialisation of 5G-related technologies in China.

A Huawei spokesman said the company was looking into the reported 5G plan and had no further comment.

China investments in 5G mobile networks are expected to reach 2.8 trillion yuan (US$443 billion) in the period from 2020 to 2030, according to a study published last year by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.