5G: the other side of the digital war

The business struggle for the dominance of 5G networks between China, the United States, and Europe is the transcript of a geopolitical confrontation with unpredictable consequences. 

The fifth-generation digital infrastructures of the Internet or 5G are a coveted object of desire because they are destined to become the skeleton of a new world. One of the cars without driver, the one that will connect everything to control it in remote or to absorb its data, the one that will open the way for the sensorización of our body and the one that will make possible a new medicine and perhaps even a new society. Technically, the speed would accelerate to the point that we can download a two-hour movie in less than four seconds compared to the six minutes we are used to with a 4G network at full capacity. The possibilities to reduce the power consumption of the connections and expand the range of connected devices could be immense.

It is totally true that, if something has characterized the technological visionaries in the last 20 years of Internet empire, it has been their consistent exaggeration. With the 5G networks, whose physical infrastructures have only just begun to unfold, the same will probably happen. In some of their more recent exaggerations, these visionaries have repeatedly confused available technology with that which consumers or regulators were willing to accept.

Thus, the oracles of the car without a driver are not comfortable with the possibility that hundreds of millions of people do not use it because they simply like to drive. Nor do they understand that until the millennials continue to buy more in physical stores than through mobile, which has led the three global e-commerce giants (Amazon, Alibaba, JD.com) to open theirs at street level. Finally, they are often unable to count, in their forecasts, on the influence of regulation. Then, overnight, they discover with horror that the massive data revolution in Europe depends on the community privacy laws, that Donald Trump can end the Net's neutrality or that China is perfectly capable of creating a world digital buoyant, vibrant and deadly censored   using regulation and technology to eliminate millions of content and expel users who dare to challenge the regime.

In the case of 5G networks, world leaders may not know what they are going to find but, at the same time, they can not afford a miscalculation that leaves them at the mercy of their rivals. This is clear to both Beijing and Washington, Brussels and other minor powers such as Japan or South Korea. For this reason, they have embarked on a career in which they want their trusted telcos, historically close to the state, to accumulate all the patents that may condition the use of new infrastructures in the sense that interests them.

 The cause of the commotion

The idea is that if these patents become international standards, all operators will be forced to accept them. Consequently, the opportunity can be enormous for its owners and the countries to which they belong. The owners will be paid a commission for using their findings. The countries, for their part, will see, first, how their companies compete with an advantage over rivals that have to adapt to their technologies and, secondly, how practical it is to have a privileged relationship with the main operators of the future of the Internet.

The great representatives of the contenders are known. On this side of the ring, in the European Union, highlight Ericsson and Nokia and countries such as Sweden, Finland, France, and Holland. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States, heavyweights such as Qualcomm, Interdigital, Intel, and Cisco emerge. In East Asia, China is advancing at full speed with Huawei and ZTE in the lead, Japan is trying not to be left behind with Fujitsu and Panasonic and, finally, South Korea is doing the same with Samsung and LG. They are not the only companies, but the consultancy Eurasia identifies them as the main holders of 5G patents.

Within this unique horse race, we must qualify. To begin with, the most elementary laws of geopolitics dictate that, if there is no clearly hegemonic power, no country can rise as the absolute winner ... neither in this race. Furthermore, clearly discriminating against any of the three major players (USA, China, and the EU) could cause two different frames to be imposed in the world (one for the winners and one for the defeated). That would be a failure for a set of standards that aspires to be global and whose framework is designed so that only the best technologies are universalized. Another important aspect is that there will be alliances between operators like those we are already seeing between Ericsson and Fujitsu or between Samsung and Japan's NEC. Tokyo and Seoul need dance partners to join forces.

We had not seen a geopolitical career of such unpredictable results for decades, because we had become accustomed to a world ruled by the United States alone or in the company of its allies. Things have changed a lot since the last technological revolution. The end of the Cold War represented the US hegemonic coronation in the short term, but also the widening of their differences with traditional allies with whom they no longer shared a common enemy. Now, just when the transatlantic relations are not going through their best, is when Donald Trump desperately needed the support of the EU to contain the advance of Beijing with 5G technologies. However, for Brussels, neither China is the Soviet Union nor Trump is the leader of the free world.


The first power has reason to fear the second in a fundamental area of ​​global power, something that is clearly seen in the brutal aggressiveness of Washington against Chinese operators, whom it accuses of using its international deployment of 5G networks for facilitating the espionage of your government. According to the New York Times, the United States has informed the countries where it has military bases that it would not consider its communications safe if they were managed by a company like Huawei. In parallel, the world vice president and head of sales in Poland of the telecommunications giant of the Asian giant they have been arrested. US diplomats have told their NATO allies that they put their national security at risk by granting 5G contracts to Chinese companies.

Although the EU is resisting the pressures by refusing to ban these companies in its market, Vodafone suspended, at the end of January, the use of Huawei's products at the heart of its infrastructures. The eyes are on Spain, which is mainly responsible for this Chinese firm concentrates a third of the European market of telecommunications equipment. Meanwhile, Trump is already preparing an executive order to prevent any computer equipment of Chinese origin from embedding itself in US networks ... and has blocked the purchase of one of the leading US firms in 5G (Qualcomm) by a Singaporean company ( Broadcom).

Are there reasons for so much panic? To begin with, it is true that, given the submission of the major Chinese strategic companies to the power of President Xi Jinping, the fears of using them to spy do not seem unfounded. Even less when we think of Big Brother in which Beijing has turned Internet for its population. However, Washington can not give many lessons after having used AT & T and Verizon to massively spy on yours. Who says he will not do the same with communications from his allies and rivals in the new age of the Internet?

From the technological point of view, there is no doubt that China is emerging as a great threat to its European and American rivals. According to the consultancy Eurasia, the companies of the Asian giant could already own 40% of the essential patents of the 5G networks. In addition, their national networks could make the leap and operate without needing to rely on the old 4G in 2020, that is, five years before those of the US and the EU. That would mean that, for five years, China would have, by far, the best infrastructures on the planet to innovate on the Internet of things. The Asian giant, which already accumulates more than 50% of the global electronic commerce market (most of it occurs within its borders) and could exceed 60% in 2022 according to the eMarketer consultancy, is in a position to squeeze the opportunity.

Of course, this impressive competition between China, the United States, and the European Union is just one of the important battlefields that arise as a result of the rise of the Asian giant as a strong candidate for the first global power. Beijing is showing that it wants to be heard and even lead the international agenda on crucial issues. He has made it clear by creating an alternative institution to the World Bank, reigning in electronic commerce, becoming the international epicenter of the electric car, promoting its peculiar Silk Road and, now also, promoting its version of the future of the Internet through the developments of 5G networks.