Thursday, February 17, 2022

Competing with China in 5G

If you like  your information raw, that is, uncooked, here’s a post for you. In context, when I present raw information I mean that I am not offering any of my own commentary. Considering how little I know about high technology, and especially 5G, you should feel grateful for this small consideration.

To show the state of play in the ongoing competition-- some would call it a cold war-- between America and China in high tech, I present some date compiled by people who  know their way around high tech. That would be Graham Allison of Harvard and Eric Schmidt, formerly of Google. They wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal this morning.

You might have noticed that AT&T and Verizon are upgrading to 5G technology. You might have noticed that they are announcing the upgrades breathlessly. 

And yet, take a step back, Allison and Schmidt tell us. Their new 5G is not an advance over 4G. Unfortunately, they seem to be more skilled at marketing than at technological advancement:

AT&T’s and Verizon’s new 5G networks are often significantly slower than the 4G networks they replace. America is far behind in almost every dimension of 5G while other nations—including China—race ahead.

America’s average 5G mobile internet speed is roughly 75 megabits per second, which is abysmal. In China’s urban centers 5G phones get average speeds of 300 megabits per second. Though that’s not quite the fastest 5G in the world—South Korea claims that title at over 400 Mbps—it’s still fast enough to download a high-definition movie in two minutes. 

Just in case you were looking for encouragement, you will happily embrace the fact that South Korea is leading China in the 5G race. Either way, America is falling far behind.

So, the authors explain what 5G matters. And they list the other countries that are moving ahead of us in the 5G race. Given that it’s Olympics season, we do not feel too badly for describing it as a race:

Mobile internet speed is a central advancement of 5G, which enables a new domain of breakthrough applications with potent economic and national-security implications. American 5G upload speeds are slower than those of many developed countries, including Israel, Singapore and Canada. In Boston, Chicago and New York City, AT&T’s 5G speeds are at least 10% slower than its 4G; in Washington, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas, Verizon’s 5G speeds are at least 20% slower than the company’s 4G.

The leading company in the 5G rollout is Huawei. You recall that we are currently sanctioning Huawei, for reasons involving defense technology-- and, of course, to support the Uighurs--, but, apparently, this is not slowing down the company’s work around the world. 

Although American sanctions have hurt Huawei, China’s national champion is still the global leader in supplying 5G infrastructure with 30% of the market, while no U.S. firms sell 5G infrastructure abroad. 

Strategically significant countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey have installed Huawei infrastructure and are already using it to deliver 5G services.

So, we are not doing very well in this competition:

Because 5G signals have short wavelengths, reliable service requires proximity to many wireless base stations. China has installed more than one million 5G base stations, while the U.S. has built only 100,000. The American fiber-optic network is also less dense than that of many developed countries like Japan, making it more difficult for mobile operators to deploy these small cell sites.

What are we doing about it? Glad you asked. Our fearless political leaders have proposed something called an Innovation and Competition Act, which means that Congress is going to try to pass a law that is going to allow us to pretend to compete.

The authors shine the light of reason on it:

The Innovation and Competition Act, which Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer hailed as “the key to preserving America’s position on the world stage as a current and future technological leader in the 21st century,” would authorize $1.5 billion in spending on 5G mobile networks through 2026. China has already spent $50 billion to build out its 5G network and is on track to spend an additional $100 billion on 5G over the next five years.

Dare I say, we are big on talk and big on spin, but small on action.

As for technological innovation, the authors tell us that China is moving ahead of us in the world of tech innovation. I trust that we will all gain solace from the fact that we are moving ahead in diversity, inclusion and equity:

China is also ahead of America in high-tech manufacturing, green energy and many applications of artificial intelligence. On current trajectories, by 2030 it will likely lead the U.S. in the number of semiconductor chips it produces and in applications of biotechnology to defeat diseases like cancer.

Have a nice day.


David Foster said...

Meanwhile, Amazon has introduced a packaged product/service for installing private-network 5G, to be used, for example, if you want to interconnect a lot of devices in a factory.

Seems like this should have merited a mention in the Allison/Schmidt article.

rotator said...

Also the article omits Verizon/AT&T/T-Mobile expenses on acquiring bandwidth of $70B or so and ongoing capex in 5G alone of $5-10B/yr EACH. China controls the bandwidth available and decrees the capex centrally and does not have to negotiate with thousands of local governments or deal with the low/mid/high band melange that exists in the US. Population density helps as well. Low/mid band 5G that has fairly wide area coverage, as noted is not markedly faster than 4G. The IOT that AWS is rolling out based on 5G can use the high band limited coverage that is much more difficult and expensive to install outside of large cities in the US.

Unknown said...

It is clearly misleading to compare average American 5G coverage nationwide to Chinese coverage in urban centers. As the article points out 5G transmission is short-range. It is possible and even logical to have high-transmission rates in urban centers while the countryside languishes.
Nevertheless I agree strongly with the overall thrust of their editorial. Americans need to get on their horse and gallop if they want to remain competitive with China.

David Foster said...

Also from the article: "the Federal Aviation Administration’s hysterics over the proximity of American airports to 5G services, which operate near scores of airports around the world with no problem"...there is in fact a real problem with 5G near airports. The issue, and the progress in resolving it, are well-explained at the FAA's 5G page:

...note especially the link which explains why the situation in other countries, specifically France, is not directly comparable to that in the US:

See also the explanation of the problem by the ICAO:

If Allison and Schmidt are comfortable being in an airliner at 120 feet above the invisible ground, in the process of a Category II ILS approach, with an unreliable altitude source, then welcome to it. Personally, I'd rate aviation safety above adding a few more locations to AT&T and Verizon's coverage maps.

Anonymous said...

What, exactly, will 5G do for me? Raise my cost to use a cell phone? What will it do for me?

bobby said...

I don't understand your objection. The rest of the world may have much faster data transmission, but we have mixed-race couples in commercials. Gotta have priorities, man.

markedup2 said...

As far as I can tell, 5G is a solution in search of a problem. What point is there to downloading an HD movie (or equivalent bulk) to a mobile device, anywhere you happen to be?

For one thing, you can't. Everything is streamed. Good luck downloading a movie and keeping it.

To flip your example around: China's top-of-the-line rocket crashes on their citizens heads after every use while Space-X cannot launch (mostly) non-crashing, reusable rockets because of some nebulous concern about loud noises affecting birds or something; it's not clear to me how rocket launches, which go straight up, have an environmental impact.

This is not a technology problem; 5G is as good an example as any.