The 5G ‘revolution’ − and beyond

23 mins. to read
The 5G ‘revolution’ − and beyond

What does the 5G revolution really mean? Victor Hill investigates the future of communication technology.

There are those who claim that 5G will not live up to the hype and that we could well live without it. There are also fears about the health risks of 5G (your brain is going to be microwaved etc.). So, this is a good moment to give pause and reflect on what the 5G revolution really means. In any case, the next phase of telecommunications technology after 5G – the Space Wide Web − is already in sight.

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Despite the claims and fears, the UK is already benefiting from the incipient fifth generation (5G) of mobile telephony in terms of better and faster communications. In late May, BT-owned EE (LON:BT.A) became the first mobile-phone-network operator in the UK to launch 5G in Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester. 

5G offers a more efficient way of processing and transmitting data, so that connection speeds will soon be up to 50 times faster than via 4G. This means that a two-hour film that might currently take six minutes to download could be yours in just seven seconds. Naturally, you will have to buy a new smartphone to get access to it – which will boost the faltering market in mobile handsets.

But China is at the front of the pack in facilitating this technology −  well ahead of the Americans. And the security implications of Chinese domination of 5G are massive. That is largely why the Trump administration had used its immense executive authority to cut Chinese technology giant, Huawei, out of the technological loop− although there are those who claim that Mr Trump is just protecting US interests Either way, the US-China trade war has now become a technology war.

The controversy concerning the involvement of Huawei has greatly intensified over the last three months. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has called Huawei “an instrument of the Chinese government”. Investors therefore need to understand that the much-hyped 5G revolution is fundamentally the latest chapter in the rise of China – which the US is seeking to contain.

The rise of China

Forty years ago, China’s total GDP was just 10 percent of that of the US in terms of purchasing-power parity. Some economists reckon that, by that measure, China has already overtaken America to become the world’s leading economy. In 2000 China’s manufacturing output was about one quarter of that of the US. By 2017, it was greater than that of the US and Japan combined. For decades, China achieved growth rates of around the 8 percent mark while the US grew at 2-3 percent in a good year. After the financial crisis of 2008-09, the western world was plunged into recession – but China kept on growing. True, Chinese growth has slowed over the last two years to around 6.5 percent, but the country is still on track to overtake the US economy in absolute GDP terms in the early 2030s.

The emerging ‘cold war’ between China and the US (which I wrote about recently for Master Investor) now has digital ‘legs’. The clash, which began as an argument over unfair Chinese trade practices, (which are reflected by a massive $420 billion US trade deficit with China) has now morphed into a technology war. To simplify a little: it’s Google(NASDAQ:GOOGL) versus Huawei (SHE:2002). What makes this of preeminent importance is that Huawei is now the driving force in the roll-out of 5G telephony across the globe,while Google dominates the existing 4G infrastructure on account of its ubiquitous Android mobile-phone operating system.

Huawei, which a few years ago was known only in the US and the UK to technology enthusiasts, is nominally a private listed company independent of the Chinese state. But there are many reasons to suppose that it is actually an instrument of policy of the Chinese Communist Party.

Huawei was founded and is still led by Ren Zhengfei, reportedly a former member of the Chinese intelligence apparatus. The roots of the company lie in the strategy of the Chinese Communist Party to shore up its authority over the country after the disastrous diplomatic backlash following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 4 June 1989 − almost exactly 30 years ago as I began to write this. This strategy has sometimes been referred to as getting strong, then getting even.

Well, they might be about to get even. Huawei has spent billions on research and now has the technological advantage in the next generation of communications technology. It seems that the game has now changed. In the old days, China was notorious for copying western technology shamelessly. Now we are struggling to catch up – and the security implications are massive.

For example, Hikvision (SHE:002415) surveillance cameras can be found almost everywhere in China. Founded in 2001, the company reportedly emerged from a Chinese government-research institute. But its camera lenses are now surveying British high streets too, as well as those in Europe, Australia, the US and Africa.

Western countries have even become dependent on China in the field of drone technology. DJI(private) based in Shenzhen is the world’s largest drone manufacturer. It is used by millions from hobbyists to news networks. Ten UK police forces use DJI drones.

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Given the strategic sensitivity of this technology, it is not entirely surprising that the Americans feel threatened. Mr Ren’s daughter, Ms Meng Wenzhou, who is the chief financial officer at Huawei, is currently under house arrest in Canada, awaiting extradition to the US on charges that she breached US  sanctions on Iran. Shortly after her arrest last January, two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were detained in China on espionage charges.

Under President Xi, who assumed the top job in November 2012, China has pursued a two-pronged strategy. At home, the supreme authority of the Communist Party has been reasserted. Minority separatism and pro-democracy protests have been crushed and the Chinese state has begun to roll out a system of technological mass surveillance. The special administrative areaof Hong Kong has been squeezed. Abroad, President Xi has sought to bring a slew of countries in south and central Asia and Africa into its economic orbit by means of the Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure programme, which is largely funded by loans from Chinese banks. China, declared President Xi 18 months ago, must “move to centre stage”.

Last year China spent $300 billion on importing computer chips – especially those which were specifically designed for AI processes. China is already well ahead with mobile-payments platforms, benefiting from a huge internal market of 1.4 billion people and an unrivalled ability to collect and mine data on its citizens. The direction of travel is to a Chinese technical ascendancy – or so many in the west fear.

5G unpacked

In reality, 5G is a cluster of new interrelated technologies which are being integrated in new ways. But, according to some technical consultants, not all of those technologies will necessarily be faster than 4G systems. In layman’s terms (this writer is a layman) there are three main types of 5G operating at low, medium and high frequencies.

The high-frequency range is an electromagnetic signal broadcast at a frequency of above 24 gigahertz. That means that data can be transferred at a speed of at least 1,000 megabits per second (mbps) – that’s 50 times as fast as the average 4G speed in the UK currently. On the downside, that high frequency means that the signal does not spread out easily over a wide area because the electromagnetic wave is narrower and less likely to diffract. One consequence of this is that   more mobile phone masts will be required.

The medium frequency variant of 5G operates at around 3-6 gigahertz and will offer speeds of around 100 mbps. This is still faster than 4G and the signal would cover a wider area than high-frequency 5G.

In Europe, low-frequency 5G will broadcast at around 700 megahertz – but, apparently, that may vary elsewhere. Data speeds at these low frequencies may not outperform 4G. Each jurisdiction is free to choose from a range of services for their 5G services. That means that your gleaming new smartphone that gives you 5G access at home may not do so abroad.

It is commonly asserted that 5G will boost growth by facilitating the internet of thingswith faster connection speeds, higher reliability and lower latency. Much of the hundreds of billions of dollars that will be spent in the next five years or so on cables, masts, antennae and software will go to just three key players. These are Huawei(29 percent market share), Nokia(17 percent) and Ericsson(15 percent) according to GSMA Intelligence, which provides data and analysis on the mobile industry

5G in China

On 6 June, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology granted 5G licenses to the country’s three largest telecoms service providers: China Mobile (HKG:0914 & NYSE:CHL), China Telecom (HKG:0728 & NYSE:CHA) and China Unicom (HKG:0762 & NYSE:CHU), as well as to the state-owned China Broadcasting Network Corporation. China Mobile announced that its 5G services will be available in 40 cities by the end of September this year.

Huawei has stated that it wants to speed up the commercial application of 5G – for instance, with regard to managing self-driving vehicles. The company has invested about $2 billion in 5G research and development over the last 10 years. ZTE (SHE:000063), another telecoms equipment vendor, has said it will take part in the development and deployment of the 5G telecoms network in China.

America hits back

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“I want 5G…in the United States as soon as possible”. This was an early-morning tweet posted by President Donald Trump earlier this year. 5G ‘fever’ was also apparent at the mobile-technology event – Mobile World Congress 19, Barcelona – back in the first week of March this year.

The world’s first commercial 5G network was switched on in March in South Korea. US providers are not expected to launch 5G services until the end of this year. The US has now banned the use of all Huawei equipment in its incipient 5G network and is putting pressure on close intelligence partners – most notably the UK – to do likewise.

Two major US players, AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) have proclaimed that 5G will replace fibre broadband in locations where fibre is not available. In their last annual report AT&Tstated that 5G will become a fixed broadband-replacement product within the next three-five years.

In March, Verizonbecame the first major US telecoms company to launch a home package for 5G. Verizon’s fixed-wireless broadband has already reached Minneapolis and Chicago, using a spectrum band called millimetre wavewhich offers high-speed connectivity, but relies on fragile line-of-sight access. Anything in the way – even glass – will block the signal. As a result, many subscribers are offered cumbersome antennae to boost the signal.

Just as much of Europe declared a climate emergencyin May, so Mr Trump declared a national security emergencyin America. He barred Huawei from selling its equipment in the US without specific government approval.

Why 5G matters

What is the big deal? High-frequency 5G will enable users to stream video on the go almost instantaneously. But there are sceptics. William Webb, a former director at UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, is the author of The 5G Myth in which he argues that few users actually need 5G. If your smartphone is slow when browsing the web or streaming a movie, that is more likely to be down to limited hardware than to network issues. None of the applications that most people use are limited by the connection speed, he says. Rather, they are limited by the processor on the device or on the far-end server.

It is more likely that 5G technology will transform the user experience through fixed wireless broadband rather than via mobile telephony. Research released by Three (a subsidiary of CK Hutchison Holdings (HKG:SEHK)) last year claimed that 5G could replace traditional connections for about 85 percent of the UK’s 26 million fixed-line customers.

Therefore, contrary to what we have been told, 5G is really a much bigger deal for commercial rather than consumer applications. That is to say that 5G will fundamentally change the way that businesses use data– but the humble smartphone user many not notice much difference.

UK mobile network O2(owned by Telefonica (BME:TEF)/(NYSE:TEF)) has been engaged with a 5G trial run at Worcester Bosch, which manufactures 250,000 residential boilers every year using over 100 robots (and many humans). The firm has installed a private 5G network at its factory[1]. The network allows the firm to connect sensors to its machines and to monitor them in real time. The 5G network can cope with these huge data streams much better than a 4G equivalent.

One sector which is considered ripe for 5G is healthcare. A trial in Liverpool is testing devices in peoples’ homes that allow health visits to be carried out remotely. The devices in question do not have 5G chips, but are connected over wi-fi to routers which broadcast a 5G signal operated by AIMES (a cloud-services  provider spun out from the University of Liverpool). Deloitte expects only around one million fixed-wireless-access modems to be sold in 2019.

The anti-5G conspiracy theorists

There are already numerous conspiracy theories surrounding the roll-out of 5G doing the rounds in cyberspace. A YouTube video which claimed that 5G towers are a form of weaponry designed by government to commit genocide has had more than one million hits. In some cities, activists have scrawled anti-5G messages on public phone kiosks and mobile-transmitter masts. While research is still underway on the possible effects of electromagnetic radiation on human and animal health, there is no conclusive evidence that exposure to phone signals cause harm. According to psychologist Oliver Mason at the University of Surrey, the anti-5G movement is a classic case of technophobia. In my view, there is a direct parallel view with the anti-vaccine movement which has gained traction on social media in recent years with deleterious consequences.

Europe: bringing up the rear – but here comes Ericsson

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In late May, the chief executive of Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) warned that Europe is falling behind the global technology race against China and the US because of its failure to roll out a pan-European 5G network. Borje Ekholm said that Europe was struggling to produce world-class technology companies at the same pace as China and the US because it had been slower to build state-of-the-art telecoms networks. Mr Ekholm claimed that Europe’s system of auctioning spectrum was “broken” and was damaging the EU’s international competitiveness.

Ericsson is the third-largest 5G equipment provider in the world. It is valued at £25.7 billion and employs 95,000 people in total (including 45,000 in Europe). The Swedish company had revenues of £17 billion last year. Mr Ekholm is on record as saying that banning Huawei from European networks will damage innovation. He thinks that security is one dimension of 5G: the bigger issue is whether the playing field in technology is level at all. He thinks that European companies like Ericsson operate at a competitive disadvantage because of unfair spectrum auctions. He argues that companies should use spectrum sharing more widely in order to allocate spectrum between 4G and 5G.

Ericsson has contracts with 18 major service providers to provide 5G infrastructure, as well as 47 memoranda of understanding[i]. Last year, it started manufacturing in the US for the first time.

Huawei under siege

In late May, Threebecame the latest British mobile-network operator to review its planned launch of 5G Huawei smartphones. Huawei was due to launch its Mate 20 5G smartphone in the UK in June. But the launch was postponed by the US executive order banning the use of Huawei equipment as a result of which Huawei phones lost access to Google’s Android operating system and other applications. EE  and Vodafone (LON:VOD) also delayed the launch of Huawei’s 5G handsets. Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and ARM (owned by Softbank (TYO:9984)), the microchip giants, have been obliged to stop supplying Huawei.

Then Huawei was barred from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a prominent US-based publisher of technical research. In early June, Huawei reportedly stopped making some smartphone models and the company suspended some orders to Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology (TPE:2354). Huawei has reportedly stockpiled months’ worth of semiconductor chips. There are even reports that it is developing its own operating system, to cut out Google’s Android.

The row about Huawei’s role in the UK’s 5G network will only get more intense.On 21 June a Chinese diplomat warned that £200 million of British beef exports to China could be at risk. China has banned the import of British meat since the BSE epidemic in the 1990s, but that ban was recently reversed.

Huawei is not the only threat

Huawei is by no means the only Chinese firm that could pose a threat to Britain’s security.

Hikvision (SHE:002415) has a market value of nearly $40 billion. The company has benefited hugely by selling about 176 million of its video surveillance CCTV systems to the Chinese government which maintains a strong interest in what its citizens are up to. But the company is much more than a manufacturer of cameras. It is an AI pioneer and has produced benchmark face-recognition technology. Controversially, in China’s western province of Xinxiang, Hikvision cameras are placed outside mosques. The Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust has more than 250 Hikvision cameras on its sites.

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Dahua (SHE:900951) is a Chinese technology company which produces surveillance cameras, drones and thermal cameras. Lincoln City Council installed more than 300 of its devices last month. Ninety-six of its devices were installed in the Fort Dunlop commercial park in Birmingham recently.

SenseTime (private) founded in Hong Kong but with close links to Beijing, creates core software which facilitates facial-recognition systems. The company raised $1.2 billion from investors including Alibaba and Fidelity International.

CloudWalk Technology (private) is another specialist in facial-recognition technology. It claims in its publicity materials that it can identify “sensitive groups of people” – sometimes by racial profiling. In 2018 the company sold the government of Zimbabwe a system to create a national facial-identification database using cameras at transportation hubs.

DJI (private) is the world’s largest manufacturer of ’consumer’ (ie non-military) drones. Several UK police forces use DJI drones including Greater Manchester Police, West Midlands Police and Devon and Cornwall Police.


The UK’s largest infrastructure company,Openreach(owned by BT), has attempted to ’future proof’ the country’s broadband network by laying nearly 85,000 kilometres of fibre optic cables rather than relying on wireless broadband. Its efforts are subsidised by the UK government which has earmarked £200 million to roll out fibre-cable broadband in hard-to-reach areas. The government’s target is to make the entire UK full-fibre by 2033. The problem is that of the ‘last mile’. That is to say the gap between the cell sites and the final customer is the biggest hurdle. But industry insiders believe that 5G will thrive in places where fibre is not available. As usual, it will work in tandem with other technologies rather than in competition with them.

Vodafone’s 5G network is set to go live in seven UK cities on 3 July and in another 12 UK cities by the end of this year. The company’s partner, CityFibre, has continued to invest in fibre infrastructure, pledging another £2.5 billion of investment late last year. Telstra (ASX:TLS), Australia’s biggest network operator, started offering all customers access to 5G in June. According to Business Insider Australia, Telstra’s 5G equipment does not offer anywhere near the 1.2 gbps speeds that have been promised or achieved in the controlled environment of Telstra’s Sydney office[ii]. Coverage has also been hard to find and inconsistent.

The great firewall of China

The above is the title of a new book by James Griffiths, a Hong Kong-based science writer. The sub-title is: How to build and control an alternative version of the internet.

In March 2015 a cyberattack, presumably orchestrated by Chinese intelligence, knocked out websites hosting anti-censorship software. For years, the Chinese state has been able to insulate China’s internet from that of the rest of the world.

China is far advanced in developing an alternative internet which blocks most Google-hosted websites and social networks. Mr Griffiths argues that Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU), China’s encapsulation of Google-cum-Facebook which is the fourth most-visited search engine in the world has become, effectively, an agency-of-state policy. When an internet user visits a site with a Baidu ad displayed, the visitor’s IP address and other data are stored on the company’s servers in China. He cites as an example of the dangers the case of a night-shift Marriott hotel manager in Omaha who lost his job because he ‘liked’ a tweet that promoted Tibetan independence.

As well as Baidu, China has internet giants such as Alibaba (NYSE:BABA), Tencent (HKG:0700) and Renren (NYSE:RENN). Hundreds of millions of its citizens are online – inside the ‘Great Firewall’. But China’s citizens can still peek over the Great Firewall into the outside world using virtual private networks (VPNs), which give anonymous access to the World Wide Web. VPNs create a kind of encrypted tunnel from computers inside the blockade to networks on the outside. But people who develop or distribute software to tunnel through the firewall are being arrested in increasing numbers.

President Xi has talked about “cyber-sovereignty” – “the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development”. Beijing’s proposed new rules concerning cybersecurity build on national intelligence and counter-espionage laws. These require that any Chinese organisation or citizen must yield information to the state on demand wherever that information may have been obtained.

The next communications revolution: the Space-Wide Web

A number of billionaires including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson are planning to reinvent the internet – 5G or not. The basic idea is to go beyond mere old terrestrial 5G and to build a Space Wide Web far above the Earth. There is no shortage of competing technologies to achieve this: balloons in the stratosphere; high-altitude drones; and constellations of satellites to name a few.

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Most internet connections these days are facilitated by old-fashioned cables. Even your top-of-the-range smartphone only connects to the internet using radio waves over the last few hundred metres from a telephony tower. But satellite internet uses relay stations that remain steady in geostationary orbit – usually 35,000 kilometres above the Equator. That 70,000-kilometre round trip, however, adds a half a second or so to the time taken to access a signal or website.

That is why the technology giants are looking to the stratosphere – the region about 10-50 kilometres above the Earth. This layer of the atmosphere is high enough for a transmitter there to serve an entire city, but low enough that a smartphone could communicate with it without the intermediation of a receiver dish. Moreover, putting a satellite in the stratosphere is much easier (and cheaper) than putting one into deep space.

Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Alphabet/Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) have already developed solar-powered drones that can hover about 20 kilometres above the Earth for weeks. The problem is that they then tend to fall to Earth precipitously. Other companies such as Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Airbus (EPA:AIR) are working on similar drones. Google has even launched a company called Loon which plans to send high-altitude balloons into the skies above Kenya soon.

The alternative is to put satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). The problem here is that these move across the horizon in about 10 minutes. So, for a continuous service, you need a string of satellites in LEO girdling the globe, all coordinated in a kind of relay race. This is not a new idea: Bill Gates envisioned a constellation of 840 LEO satellites back in the 1990s, but the world was not quite ready. His vehicle, Teledisc, folded in 2002. Already, Iridium Communications (NADAQ:IRDM), Globalstar (NYSEAMERICAN:GSAT) and Orbcomm (NASDAQ:ORBC) each have a few dozen LEO satellites.

OneWeb, a start-up backed by Airbus (EPA:AIR), computer-chip maker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Sir Richard Branson are also in the game. It put its first six satellites, costing about $1 million apiece, into an orbit about 1,200 kilometres above the Earth in February. The company claims that 600 satellites connecting users to 40 or so ground stations should be functional by 2021.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX (private), Luxembourg-based LeoSat and the Canadian company Telesat all plan to create a space-based internet system in the early 2020s. All three companies aim to use energy-efficient lasers to enable their satellites to communicate with each other. SpaceX envisages a constellation of nearly 12,000 Starlink satellites orbiting at 340 kilometres. Their business plan anticipates 40 million subscribers and $30 billion in revenue by 2025. But the plate-sized receiver that SpaceX is developing will cost somewhere between $100 and $300. That will be a tall order for many subscribers in the developing world for whom the system is supposedly designed.

SpaceX is not alone. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) has developed a project called Kuiper, withplans to launch 3,200 internet satellites at an altitude of 600 kilometres. Some analysts think that the satellite-powered internet could jump over the Great Firewall of China – so even this is relevant to the China-US New Cold War. Mr Musk has pertinently pointed out that China is developing the capacity to shoot satellites down. (And that will be the subject of a future article…)


In the UK the telecoms service providers racing to provide 5G infrastructure are EEand Vodafone,  and they are both dynamic businesses.

In terms of 5G equipment manufacturers, Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) are Europe’s technology titans. (I have always wanted to write a book about Nokia, which started out more than a century ago manufacturing boots for the Russian army – it has re-invented itself so many times that it is a paradigm of the creative destruction that is capitalism.)

Both companies have started drawing up emergency plans to move much of their most sensitive operations out of China and to split up their supply chains to counter national-security concerns. European firms are concerned that it will become increasingly difficult to sell equipment with Chinese-made components in the EU and the US. Nokia is considering setting up an EU-only operation for its 5G supply chain.

What is happening right now in the world of Trump and Xi is something that I began to describe in December 2016 when I wrote a piece for this magazine entitled The End of Globalisation. Forget outsourcing; think resourcing. This is the age of competing technological capitalism – and of the New Cold War between the US and China, which no investor can escape.

Increasingly we need to ‘get real’ about the cleavage in the internet and security shields in which we operate. Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) recently slashed the number of staff working at its R&D outfit in China. Ericsson’s Beijing office was raided last month as a result of complaints of intellectual-property infringement.

Anyone who buys controversial Chinese technology equities like Huawei is brave. Anyone who divests western 5G technology giants like Ericsson is short-sighted.

[1] New Scientist, 09 March 2019: Phoning in the future, by Chris Baraniuk, page 23.

[i]How Ericsson is taking on Huawei in race for 5G crown, by Natasha Bernal, Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2019.


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