5G Sets the Agenda for Global Geopolitics

Although historically the development of the different standards has been marked by a fundamentally technological agenda, in the case of 5G, its implementation seems to be marked by commercial and geopolitical agendas, becoming the new battlefield of a kind of 21st century cold war.


Why is 5G the new battleground of global geopolitics?

5G networks will undoubtedly be the new jewel of the telecommunications crown in the next decade, becoming the backbone of global communications. Lines and data from millions of smartphone connections, self-driving cars, fully automated homes, state-of-the-art telemedicine and telehealth, to fully connected smart cities will be circulating through them.

The promise of this new connection standard is that the capacity of information circulation will grow dramatically and speeds will exceed any expectation, being able, for example, to download a two-hour movie in less than four seconds. This means an unprecedented improvement in connection speeds compared to the ten minutes it takes on average on a 4G network.

The promise of this new connection standard is that the capacity of information circulation will grow dramatically and speeds will exceed any expectation, being able, for example, to download a two-hour movie in less than four seconds. This means an unprecedented improvement in connection speeds compared to the ten minutes it takes on average on a 4G network.

But the most relevant thing for telecommunications is that with 5G, data plans with almost unlimited capacity and speeds never seen before in mobile communications can be offered. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU): “Speeds will be radically higher, reaching an average of at least 1 gigabyte per second, allowing the explosion in services derived from the Internet of Things. This paradigm assumes that any physical object that can be connected to a sensor is susceptible to being connected to the Internet and managed remotely via the web”.

The ability to connect the world at high speeds and transfer information so efficiently is what makes the promise of 5G so appealing. However, its geopolitical importance lies in another aspect derived from that ability: 5G is designed to be the driver of the Internet of Things.

As we have frequently explained in the Andinalink space, the Internet of Things is simply the connectivity of physical objects that were previously unrelated to the Internet, such as household appliances, office equipment, cars, houses, industries and even living organisms. The concept is that any person or company with 5G connectivity can control their home or business from their cell phone anywhere, through the internet and cell phone networks.
This promise is amazing, and it is already in place in many places and companies around the world, but 5G would make it a top-notch political issue, for a matter as simple as profound: whoever masters the networks could have access to much more complete information about people and societies.

5G, the Internet of Things and the Global Domain of Information

During 2018 and 2019, we have been listening insistently to the news about the U.S. government’s siege of the Chinese technology multinational Huawei. The Trump government has initiated an international judicial assault against the company, which he accuses of being an instrument of information theft for its Chinese counterpart, in a similar manner as the United States itself did and which was denounced by the now-convicted Edward Snowden.

As we discussed in a previous post on this blog, the accusation stems from the suspicion that Huawei installed Internet of Things technologies, a major goal of 5G, in thousands of state offices around the world as part of innovative service packages. The United States claims, albeit with very weak evidence, that with these technologies and connections the Chinese company stole huge amounts of organizational information that was sent directly to Shanghai and then to Beijing. In addition to the suspicion of espionage, Huawei is the company that has invested the most in the development of 5G and has raised the banner of the Internet of Things based on mobile networks.

As a result of the accusation, the Canadian government, at the request of the US justice system, captured Wanzhou Meng, daughter of Huawei’s founder and financial director, in December 2018, and accused her of espionage. The situation has escalated to the diplomatic and commercial level, generating uncertainty for the entire technology sector of the market.

Although both episodes have been presented to public opinion as matters of national security and trade sovereignty, they have as their background the race for the 5G implementation, which China is clearly winning over all the other countries, so the United States would be resorting to unconventional geopolitical strategies to stop the Chinese advance, a strategy that is practically useless because the technology is ready and its implementation started unstoppable in more than 20 colossus cities in East Asia.

Faced with this tug-of-war situation, which has companies and governments in North America and Europe at odds with each other, and which has even set China at odds with relatively neutral countries like Canada, 5G is today taking a geopolitical turn whose consequences we will only know in time. And that is not to mention the other side of the process: the financial expectations about the market that is opening up.

A Billionaire Business

A study conducted by the GSMA ⎯ a global organization that brings together and associates mobile operators around the world, as well as mobile and portable device manufacturers, software companies, equipment suppliers, Internet companies and industry organizations ⎯ stated that 5G will contribute more than 2.2 trillion dollars to the global economy in just three decades.

The unimaginable opportunities that will arise from 5G, the amount of information that will transit through its networks and the billion-dollar business that it represents, has made this technology the most important battlefield between China, the United States and Europe. But despite this negative and conflictive start, 5G is not a matter of powers and governments, but a concerted standard among dozens of companies in the world. Its formulation, under the tutelage of the ITU, counted on the participation of stakeholders from the mobile and internet industry around the world (starting with Huawei and ATT&T), as well as states, regulators and multilateral organizations.

5G may be a geopolitical battleground nowadays, but its spirit is far superior to the intrigues and ambitions of companies and powers. If things are done right, the prospects for tele-health, tele-government, tele-education and digital culture can mean an improvement in the living conditions of the poorest countries. If they are done incorrectly, the digital gap, the main threat today to the already precarious equity of the world, will worsen in apocalyptic proportions, and the security of States and organizations will be at risk due to the low reliability of transactions. Of course, everything will depend on the commitment of civil society, academia, watchdog organizations and state and multi-sector regulators.

Gabriel E. Levy B.
Sergio A. Urquijo M.