The emergence of 5G (fifth generation wireless) networks has the potential to uncover new use cases, commercial applications, impact consumer access to public goods and services, and emphasize the importance of geopolitical ties—not least the longtime relationship between the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific ally, Japan.

This was the consensus of a distinguished panel of technology, policy and geopolitical experts convened virtually by New York’s Japan Society on Tuesday, moderated by Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology at the Brookings Institution.

First, as always, definitions

Muriel Médard, Cecil H. Green Professor in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department at MIT, who also leads MIT’s Network Coding and Reliable Communications Group, urged attendees to distinguish between the “formal” definition of 5G and the “informal” definition, the latter being the primary driver for most of the public’s excitement about the technology.

Informally, she said, 5G is, in effect, “a network [that is] integrating everything: the cloud, the ‘fog’ (the outer edges of the Internet cloud), storage, different types of networks,” and one in which satellite technology plays an increasingly important role in terms of coverage and backhaul.

She explained that while 5G is usually considered to be a set of standards associated with a body (specifically 5G-PPP, the 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership, a European-based joint initiative that claims to be the world’s biggest 5G research program): a de facto closed set of industry players who get together and make decisions.

But, informally, 5G has become an enabler of technology development, given broader demand for very low latency systems that enable different types of applications, as well as demand for access to all available spectrum frequencies (rather than seeing most emerging services at the most desirable carrier frequencies, such as 2.5 GhZ or 3.5 GhZ in Japan, services are increasingly being offered at frequencies that haven’t been used in ages (such as 600 MhZ0).

With such a “hodge-podge” of applications at different networks and frequencies, the technical challenge for 5G then becomes making these different networks work together, either through mathematical means or random linear network coding.

Is the “5G future” scenario inevitable?

“It’s not clear that we will need what’s currently touted as 5G to get the services that we need,” Médard said. “There’s a set of desiderata for ability, low delay, heterogeneity…The usual reason why you have a new generation [of wireless networks] every 10 years is not necessarily because of the technology at all, but because we were relying on a traditional phone system [on which to base these networks] and the equipment was basically at the end of its life.”

In order to address these challenges more pragmatically, rather than continuing what she called “an umbilical relationship” between phone companies and network equipment makers, Open RAN systems (which allow for interoperability of network equipment, while preserving intellectual property protections) could be a better solution.

Japan is on it…

Yuka Koshino, London-based Research Fellow for Japanese Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that 5G’s significance spans both domestic and international issues—particularly for Japan. Technical applications of 5G—specifically telemedicine, precision agriculture, and smart manufacturing—will be vital to Japan, due to its shrinking population and workforce.

These factors, in particular, have led Japan to approach 5G as a “catalyst for innovation,” and the Japanese government has been at the forefront of promoting Open-RAN technology. While there have been critiques about the speed of the 5G rollout and the number of base stations, the Japanese government has been proactive in providing tax incentives to telecom operators who adopt open technology that is interoperable with international vendors.

Elsewhere, she said, 5G has become a loaded geopolitical topic, as it underscores the lack of vendor diversity in the current equipment market for 5G base station and radio signal equipment: the market is dominated by a tiny clutch of manufacturers including Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung etc) with the largest market share held by Chinese vendors, considered “high-risk vendors” from many countries

“5G has made us think about vendor diversity and competition in the market, especially because so many countries have become more serious about security concerns around 5G,” said Koshino.

…But China has been on it

Elsa Kania, Adjunct Senior Fellow in Technology and National Security at the Center for New American Security, whose work focuses on Chinese military strategy, innovation and emerging technologies, said that while the world is starting to see 5G come to fruition, from the perspective of competitive advantage, the U.S. has lagged behind relative to its potential. The still-raging covid-19 pandemic has been a “case study” of the relative successes of China’s model in some respects, she said, though not in terms of cutting-edge innovation, where American research (as well as Japan’s) is still pioneering.

But in terms of potential economic wins, China is at the forefront, and its leaders have committed to supporting the technology, where applications like 5G-enabled robots for delivery and sanitation, and remote diagnostics to support doctors, will be a priority going forward.

Kania said China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, with its emphasis on facilitating new types of infrastructure, comes at a moment when global economies are struggling to find new sources of future growth and dynamism. 5G brings to bear many possibilities in that regard, and is “a matter of national consequence in terms of tangible benefits”—coming, as it does, at a time when many Americans don’t have access to basic Internet.

There’s also an increasing unease about security risks, specifically those posed globally by the ascendance of Huawei. Kania said that the debate on 5G security has often focused—with good reason, but possibly too intently—on Huawei itself, owing to its dominance, the extent to which it’s subject to opaque and undue government influence, a basic lack of transparency about its relationship with the Chinese government, and shoddy security from networks. But focusing too squarely on Huawei is not enough to create or promote security, when other aspects of 5G infrastructure may remain insecure without a “far-reaching paradigm” for security.

“When we talk about 5G there’s a tendency to talk about a race or rivalry,” she said. “What concerns me is that when there’s a focus on speed, it sometimes comes at the risk of security, which is so vital to the viability of 5G going forward. It’s a marathon, and not one with a single course. 5G is not a single monolithic technology. I think the shared challenge is that with this greater complexity comes greater threats and concerns that could be more difficult to mitigate…but could [ultimately] be more secure than the insecure systems that we rely on today.”

Trust

Kazuo Noguchi, Senior Manager of the Cyber Security Team and Research & Development Division at Hitachi America, Ltd. said that the successful implementation of 5G technologies would come down to “trust”—between countries, within data security, and in the end-to-end technology supply chain. These issues include for example, questions over whether Chinese companies could be pushed, from a policy perspective, by government entities in China to take certain actions, and find it hard to refuse, or even the security of critical technology in chips (for example, whether Taiwan Semiconductor. These concerns, in turn, highlight the continued importance of the U.S.-Japan relationship.

Noguchi said that while Japan had been a latecomer to 5G, compared with China, its cooperation with the U.S. has the advantage of being complementary. Since World War II, Japan has focused on economic activities, rather than national security or defense, whereas the U.S. has a very strong Department of Defense legacy with the Internet (which actually began as a defense application).

Finally, he noted, the bilateral Digital Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Japan provides a legal framework for technology relationships, the mechanism for trust shouldn’t happen just at the level of law, but at the technical and “real communication” level.

5.5G…wait, what?

Incidentally, the 2020 Global Mobile Broadband Forum (MBBF) just wrapped in Shanghai, China, where Huawei Executive Director David Wang delivered a keynote address detailing efforts underway between Huawei and its industry partners to “define 5.5G,” the presumptive successor technology to 5G.

Speaking before attendees (apparently meeting in person) Wang characterized 5.5G as a standard that will take us beyond the Internet of Everything, enabling the intelligent Internet of Everything.”

Huawei still expects 5G to become and remain the dominant network standard through 2030, marking the culmination of what it is calling a “golden decade of 5G”

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