Who’s going to win the 5G ‘race’? Does it matter?
Sep 21, 2018 by Manuel R. Marti


We’ve all seen the headlines. They include ‘The global race for 5G technology is on, and it’s not looking good’. Elsewhere, you may have come across ‘The 5G Race: China and US battle to control world’s fastest wireless internet,’ or just ‘The race to 5G’.

This ‘race’ seems to be contested by some familiar names. Representing Europe, we have Ericsson and Nokia. Qualcomm is wearing US colours, while Samsung is on the South Korean team.

And this time, China has joined in as well. Both Huawei and ZTE are well positioned to become major players due to the popularity of their equipment across Asia and Europe. According to a report from Analysys Mason, China has positioned itself as the global 5G leader ahead of South Korea and the US.

Some might argue that early leadership offers great advantages. The so-called “data network effect”, in which winning the gold medal translates into more users who generate more data, can help to improve services and attract further users.

But as the 5G ‘race’ progresses, it is not clear how solid those claims are. There are still significant hurdles standing in the way of rapid commercialisation.

While the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker, Huawei, claims that 5G has been over-hyped and that customers are unlikely to notice any fundamental or material differences when it arrives, investment from other industries which were meant to kick off the ecosystem is still lagging behind.

Although mmWave spectrum has already been auctioned in South Korea and the Italian assignment is underway, the emission limits established by Europe’s Electronic Communications Committee mean that today’s chips only work in the upper part of the 26 GHz band.

The need to build many more base stations – the Small Cell Forum estimates mobile operators are expecting to deploy at least 10 times the number of outdoor urban cells for 5G than they currently use for 4G – could also become a constraint if regulations do not change. 

Is country-vs-country discourse still relevant? Probably only for politicians and civil servants. I can think of one prominent US politician in particular who is very keen on ‘winning’. And European Commission officials are always going on about how Europe ‘led the world’ with GSM. They would love to be able to say the same of 5G, but in the age of global business, that seems highly unlikely.•


  • Simon Pike says:

    To extend your race analogy, 5G is like a triathlon, with the current flurry of announcements representing the results of the first stage. The second stage is the investment in deployment of infrastructure and widespread availability of terminals, and the third is achieving a return on that investment. As in athletics, the leader at the first stage often does not win the race.

    The founder of the Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, said “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well”. What is true of the five Olympic rings is also true of 5G.