It’s Our Way or Huawei: The Race for 5G

Ever notice that little “LTE” or “4G” blurb on the top left corner of your phone? Respectively standing for “Long Term Evolution” and “4th Generation,” LTE and 4G networks have since been phased out from the top of your iPhones, but their significance has only grown. Used day-to-day in phone calls, text messaging, and movie streaming, cellular networks like LTE and 4G are composed of connected base stations which cover a geographic area, and together, they enable users to communicate or access content with other individuals through portable devices, including cell phones, tablets, and laptops.

Most recently, the tech world has been abuzz with the forthcoming release of a 5th generation wireless sequence, otherwise known as 5G. With 5G networks, wireless communication can process even faster, reducing lags in sending and receiving text messages. Moreover, an increasing number of pedestrian products, such as cars or thermostats (ex. Tesla and Nest) can be connected to the Internet in the growing field of IoT (Internet-of-Things); there have even been talks of “the smart city,” in which every facet is connected online. In essence, 5G networks would enable a host of novel developments in the area of technology as well as improve citizens’ daily lives.

Last month, news outlets caught on with the term, heavily referencing it while covering Broadcom, a Singapore-based semiconductor company, and its attempt to acquire Qualcomm, a US-based telecommunications company. However, several days following Broadcom’s announcement, President Trump stymied the merger, partially to comply with his protectionist stance but also in fear of an Asian takeover of 5G networks. The failed Broadcom-Qualcomm merger points to mounting national concern over which nation would be the first to pioneer 5G networks and consequently reap its profits. In particular, that nation would become the primary producer of 5G chips, forcing companies in other nations to purchase these; the chips could potentially include data-tracking devices, thus justifying Trump’s citation of security concerns.

Though the United States was able to prevent the Broadcom-Qualcomm merger, an even greater threat looms on the horizon. Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company that produces both chips and smartphones, has been gaining ground in the 5G race. On the heels of Apple and Samsung in market share, Huawei has been partnering with European countries with plans to roll out 5G in the next year and potentially become the world’s primary manufacturer of 5G chips. Alongside American claims that Huawei’s technology poses the threat of insidious surveillance, Huawei is feared by American policymakers because its dominance over 5G would allow China to essentially supersede Silicon Valley as the world’s tech hub.

5G networks will be critical in developing new technologies to come, and their assets to a nation’s economy are not to be underestimated. As the US continues thinking of tactics to prevent China from deploying 5G, a greater question comes to mind: what happens if we, the US, aren’t the first? Technology, as much as it attempts to be depoliticized, is often a product of national security and can become a matter of one nation establishing political dominance over the other. There’s no easy prediction of who will win this race, but for now, it is vital that governments and tech companies more closely cooperate to better understand the greater implications at hand.