How the expansion of 5G technology is causing a geopolitical battle

Getting fast and reliable internet connections is already a priority objective for any country that wants to not miss the train of the new digital economy.

This connectivity is a key competitiveness factor for the economy, as other non-digital infrastructures such as energy or transport have been in the past.

deployment of 5G networks

The European Union (EU) itself has understood it this way and, therefore, has included among its goals the adequate, fast and reliable deployment of 5G communication networks.

According to their plans, by 2020 all member countries must have at least one main city with 5G commercially available and by 2025 the deployment should be total.

The investments required by this new network represent, according to the European Commission, 910,000 million euros (just over the US $ 1 trillion) in addition to the Union's GDP and the creation of 1.3 million jobs. Without this investment effort, a digital single market will not be achieved and Europe would lag behind the US and China in the race for global technological dominance.

Now, if it is so important not to lose that race, it is worth asking what makes an issue apparently so relevant from the geopolitical point of view, and strictly speaking, only technological.

5G connectivity is not simply an improvement on what already exists as in its day the transition from 3G to 4G supposed. It is a profound change in connectivity that will allow, among other things, a network response time of one millisecond and a connection speed 100 times faster than the current 4G network, in addition to 90% energy savings compared to current systems.

A transversal economic boost

This speed and reliability of the connection will be, as stated in the National 5G Plan approved by the government of Spain in 2018, a key piece in the digital transformation of society and the economy, since the full development of the internet of things, autonomous driving, 3D printing, industry 4.0, telemedicine, the massive use of big data, advanced robotics or virtual reality, among other realities, will be supported on the basis of 5G.

It is expected that the deployment will reach its technological and commercial maturity as of 2020 and that its impact will improve the productivity, efficiency and effectiveness of companies and public administrations, achieving a transversal economic boost effect on the economy as a whole.

The model chosen in most countries for its implementation is to allow operators to enter into voluntary agreements among themselves for the distribution, placement and shared use of expensive infrastructure, almost always on the basis of a dominant operator that allows using their resources to the other operators.

A large investment is necessary that must be paid for by the private telecommunications companies that take on this challenge.

And this because it is necessary to deploy additional infrastructure to that already deployed with 4G: more fibre and install thousands of small cells every hundred meters to cover the entire territory.

In addition, public administrations must ensure proper management of the radio spectrum, which is in the public domain, in order to free up bandwidth.

The 5G geopolitical ring

But what is at stake is more than correct use of the opportunities that technology offers. So is technological preponderance.

This is how the United States and China have understood it in recent years, both fully engaged in a race to achieve technological supremacy: the prevalence of technologies and systems gives those who achieve that position an undoubted competitive advantage when it comes to imposing your geopolitical, economic, commercial or even cultural interests.

5G has also become a conflictive arena in which both powers compete in a trade war, sometimes using national security reasons that probably also include a good dose of protection for national companies and a dispute over the imposition of their own technology.

It is not surprising that this dispute has intensified in the last year because the stakes are high. It is part of the broader and more important open conflict regarding microchips, which are critical to all systems, yet especially relevant to the defence and security industry.

In the field of deployment of 5G networks, the manufacture of small cells, which will be an important part of the system architecture, will have special relevance.

deployment of 5G networks

There are five main manufacturers of these elements: Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, Huawei and ZTE, the last two Chinese companies. That is the reason why the use of technology by these two companies has led to clashes between the US and China.

As early as 2012, the Intelligence Commission of the United States Congress warned that both ZTE and Huawei could pose a threat to national security.

These geopolitical disputes refer mainly to the possibility that Chinese manufacturers introduce in their products devices that allow the sending of information in a covert way or that, simply, can escape the control of the operator of such equipment, endangering the security, integrity or systems confidentiality.

National security is also implied for the rest of the countries and not only for those superpowers since technological dependence or the option for one or other systems can be strategic options that condition their future development.

One manifestation of that concern would be, for example, the New Zealand government's ban on a telecommunications network operator, Spark, on the use of Huawei systems for the deployment of its 5G network.

The New Zealand Executive is thus following in the footsteps of Australia and the United States, which already prevent that manufacturer's equipment from being integrated into their communications networks.

Recently, Germany has joined this veto on Chinese technology for the deployment of 5G networks citing cybersecurity reasons. Therefore, China claims that the United States is pressuring its allies to take sides in this new technological war.

Cybersecurity, a global concern

Aspects related to the cybersecurity of networks and systems are essential to ensure the development of the world economy.

In its report on global risks, the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum singled out cyberattacks as the most likely threat second only to extreme weather events, natural disasters and massive data theft.

However, what does not seem serious is restricting the economic freedoms that protect world free trade without solid, well-founded reasons and not a priori determined by complete categories of companies according to nationality.

There are serious suspicions about compliance with the privacy or industrial property regulations of some manufacturers, as well as the fear-based on verified facts, that this technology has back doors.

Given that it is suspected that some of these preventions are reinforced for commercial or economic reasons, we cannot help but insist on the need for States to be present when determining what are the standards and requirements to be met by when it comes to ensuring that adequate level of cybersecurity.

In this sense, it is especially useful to carry out cybersecurity audits on all the new elements that are incorporated into the networks.

They must be free of any suspicion after the corresponding examination, analysis and certification by competent public authorities in the matter. The technology that is going to be used by companies when deploying these 5G networks, wherever it comes from, must be reliable as far as possible.

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