Has China Really Opened Up a 5G Gap?

Robert Clark
News Analysis
Robert Clark
2/9/2018
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In the early 1960s it was a missile gap. Now it's a "5G gap" that is unnerving some US security officials.

That's the suggestion from a leaked National Security Council presentation calling for the US government to build and own a national 5G network. (See Trump Could Nationalize 5G – Report.)

While the idea of nationalizing 5G has been widely trashed, it is still worth asking if China has really opened up a lead in 5G.

The unnamed NSC official argued that 5G would be transformational, influencing "everything from automated cars and aircraft to advance logistics and manufacturing to true AI-enhanced network combat."

China was taking the lead in these areas and had a dominant infrastructure position, his presentation said.

The official was correct to point out that China is determined to be a leader in 5G. It was a bystander in 2G, a bit player in 3G and then a major voice in 4G development.

With 5G, Chinese officials and industry leaders see the opportunity to leap to the front of the pack.

They start from a good spot: China has the world's biggest market and the biggest operator by subscriber numbers, and it is home to three of the current top five handset makers as well as the biggest network equipment vendor.

China's focus is on building a standalone 5G network, a sign of its ambition and technical capability, analyst firm Jefferies said in a recent research note, following briefings from China's IMT-2020 Promotion Group and operators.

China's role in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) reflects this. Chinese firms are putting their energies into building specifications for this standalone 5G technology rather than the LTE-compatible standards.


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Unsurprisingly, Chinese companies, and in particular China Mobile Communications Corp. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , have been aggressively participating in the 3GPP standards process for 5G. Chinese companies' share of 5G patents is certain to surpass the 10% mark achieved in 4G.

When it comes to deployment, Chinese officials have repeatedly said they aim to launch a commercial 5G network by 2020.

That puts China behind the US, where AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) say they will have commercial networks with handsets in 2019, as well as Japan and South Korea, where there is fierce competition to be the first to market.

As Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) President Cristiano Amon said earlier this week, the starting line looks to be the first half of 2019. (See Qualcomm Sets Out Its 5G Stall for 2018.)

Right now the Chinese industry is moving ahead with what it calls Phase 3 trials, using the officially designated 3.5GHz and 4.9GHz frequency bands along with millimeter wave spectrum.

China Mobile is planning a pre-commercial trial in five cities in the third quarter of 2018, with about 500 basestations. It will expand that to 20 cities early next year, with another 500 basestations, to test out business applications.

That scale may in itself be an advantage, and GSMA Intelligence has forecast that China will have the world's biggest 5G user base by 2025.

But there's nothing to suggest China has opened up a 5G gap over the rest of the world, let alone the US.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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