New technologies that need ultra high-speed data not feasible with 4G will potentially become reality.
“The next generation of wireless tech is more than just a boost for your phone. Think self-driving cars, telemedicine and VR reaching their true potential.”
“The (Chinese) government controls all three of the country’s mobile operators (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom) and has been “guiding” them to deploy large-scale 5G test networks in dozens of cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. China Mobile claims that its tests alone represent the world’s largest 5G trial network.
Beijing has also committed to giving Chinese operators large chunks of spectrum for 5G. That’s a far cushier arrangement than operators enjoy in the US and many other countries, where they pay regulators billions of dollars for the right to use slivers of spectrum. These radio frequencies carry wireless signals and are critical to cellular service, especially 5G, which will need wide swaths of bandwidth to provide users with superfast speeds.
China wants to use 5G in smart cities and connected cars—for starters. A prime example is Xiong’an, a new city that the government is building 80 miles (129 km) southwest of Beijing to ease crowding in the capital. China Mobile and China Telecom have already established test networks there. Companies including web giant Baidu are using these networks to live-stream events in virtual reality and, as in Fangshan, enable autonomous vehicles to transmit data to each other so they can avoid collisions. Local authorities have encouraged developers to create 5G-based applications related to telemedicine and urban infrastructure, while Chinese companies want to use 5G to add connectivity and intelligence to factory equipment.
Early access to robust 5G networks could give China an edge in developing and monetizing services that use them—just as Silicon Valley profited from apps like Instagram, Uber, and YouTube after 4G LTE networks launched. Because the US was the first country to make 4G available on a wide scale, American firms were quick to take advantage of it and sell the resulting apps globally. China’s manufacturing center, Shenzhen, could tap 5G to connect huge volumes of devices to the cloud and become a leader in the internet of things (IoT).
It depends how you define the 5G race. If you count the launch of commercial service in any form, the US is in front of China. Verizon started selling its own 5G service, which is essentially a wireless version of wired broadband for homes and offices, in four US cities in October. AT&T plans to introduce mobile 5G service in 12 US cities before the end of the year. T-Mobile and Sprint say they will turn on their 5G networks by mid-2019. Chinese operators don’t plan to start selling 5G service until 2020.
However, if you think a country needs to roll out 5G to all its major cities in order to claim leadership, China looks likely to come out ahead. China Tower, a company that builds infrastructure for the country’s mobile operators, has said it can cover China with 5G within three years of the government’s allocation of spectrum. That points to national coverage by 2023.
In the US, the process will probably be far slower because more infrastructure will need to be built out. Chinese carriers will mostly use a spectrum band similar to what they used for 3G and 4G, which will allow them to reuse a number of their existing cell sites, according to Mike Murphy, who heads global 5G technology development for Nokia. But in the US, AT&T and Verizon plan to use a high-frequency band in which signals travel less far, which will require three to four times more cell sites than 4G did. The carriers will need to negotiate contracts to install these sites with each city, and a number have already signaled resistance.
Equipment makers expect China to be able to roll out 5G much more rapidly. “History tells that [Chinese operators] ramp up very quickly,” says Thomas Noren, who heads 5G commercialization efforts for Ericsson, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of mobile network equipment. “They have [already] built more than an order of magnitude larger 4G networks than those in the US.””