The 5G wireless technology now being introduced by phone companies promises to bring a world of innovations to mobile service — from connected appliances to self-driving cars — just as cable transformed television generations ago with hundreds of new channels. It also promises to bring a new global round of technology competition — one that overlaps with arguments over security that have pitted the U.S. against China and raised tensions in Europe, to the dismay of telecom executives who fear that 5G’s rollout there could be delayed.
1. What’s 5G?
5G simply stands for fifth-generation mobile networks or fifth-generation wireless systems. It will be the successor to 4G, the current top-of-the-line network technology first introduced commercially in 2009. 5G could end up being 100 times faster than 4G, with speeds that reach 10 gigabits per second. That would allow consumers to download a full-length high-definition movie in seconds. 5G will also increase total bandwidth, which will be needed to accommodate the “internet of things” — the ballooning number of linked products, from smart refrigerators to traffic lights to dog collars, that will be sending and receiving data.
2. Is it in use yet?
In South Korea in the first week of April, SK Telecom and its smaller rivals started a nationwide 5G service and Samsung Electronics Co. began selling a 5G-capable phone as part of its commercial rollout. On the same day, Verizon Communications Inc. started services in Minneapolis and Chicago. The U.S. carrier lacks actual 5G phones and can only offer the high-speed services to customers with a Motorola Z3 handset who pay $50 extra for a snap-on module. AT&T Inc. started a 5G service in December that serves hot-spot devices. Sprint Corp. says it will start limited 5G service in May. More manufacturers are expected to introduce 5G phones this year globally, including Huawei Technologies Co., ZTE Corp., LG Corp., Lenovo Group Ltd. and OnePlus.
3. When will 5G be the new normal?
Not for a bit. Even if you live in one of the countries where carriers are busy rolling out 5G services — as well as the U.S. and South Korea, Japan and China are targeting early commercial networks — it will be a couple of years at least before the geographic reach will be great enough to let you use your 5G phone without relying on current wireless networks most of the time.
4. What are the security worries?
They center on the new system’s ubiquity. 5G isn’t easier to hack than its predecessors, but it will eventually connect many more devices. So protection from outside malignant forces becomes a larger concern. The U.S. and others are worried that Chinese 5G equipment, chips and software could be outfitted to spy on other nations. In August, Australia banned Huawei and ZTE Corp. from supplying 5G wireless equipment to its telecommunication operators, citing national security. Verizon and rival AT&T Inc. have dropped plans to sell Huawei phones. In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump blocked Broadcom Ltd. from acquiring Qualcomm Inc., the biggest maker of mobile-phone chips, over concerns that the merger would give China an edge in the race to develop 5G. In general, the U.S. wants to keep Huawei away from 5G.
5. What else is being done on security?
The U.K., Germany, France and other countries are weighing whether to restrict Chinese networking gear. Trump is considering an executive order to erect barriers to Huawei doing business in the U.S. Separately, the Federal Communications Commission is considering banning the use of some federal subsidies for networking gear from firms suspected of being a national security risk, such as Huawei. Some rural carriers use Huawei networking gear, citing its low cost.
6. How big are the dangers?
The U.S. charges brought against Huawei include industrial sabotage — something that 5G could allow to happen on a larger scale, according to U.S. officials. But other concerns include the vulnerability of public infrastructure and what might happen in a widespread failure. While today’s wireless systems connect a few devices like our phones and computers, 5G promises a radio wave-rich environment where billions of chips, sensors, cameras, appliances and electronics around us will be interconnected, pinging information back and forth. By 2024, the amount of data carried by mobile networks will be five times greater than it is today and 5G networks will cover more than 40 percent of the world’s population, according to Ericsson AB, the Swedish maker of wireless networks. It estimates that more than 22 billion gadgets will be connected to the internet of things by 2024.
7. What else are officials worried about?
Spying — in particular suspected ties between Huawei and China’s intelligence agencies. The European Union’s digital chief Andrus Ansip has urged companies to reconsider partnerships with Chinese companies due to an intelligence law, passed in 2017, that says any organization and citizen must assist Beijing’s spy agencies with investigations.
8. What does Huawei say?
Huawei has repeatedly denied allegations that it is an enabler for Chinese espionage, and has said blacklisting the company without proof will hurt the industry and disrupt new high-speed technology. Despite fear and speculation, there has been no convincing evidence that national security is in jeopardy, according to Huawei. The company commissioned a legal opinion to analyze the consequences of the 2017 law and has said that it doesn’t require Huawei to cooperate with state intelligence if it would contradict the legitimate rights and interests of individuals and organizations. Billionaire founder Ren Zhengfei used a rare press appearance in January to insist the company doesn’t help Beijing spy.
9. What do phone companies think?
Telecommunication companies have warned that costs will rise if Huawei is barred from supplying 5G equipment. Any ban would have a “significant implication” for European carriers’ costs as they roll out 5G and create “significant delay,” Nick Read, chief executive officer of Vodafone Group Plc, said in January.