The deployments of 5G across the globe has been emerging as one of the prime battlegrounds of the United States (US)-China trade war, with the Donald Trump administration applying considerable pressure on its allies and countries of influence to exclude Chinese companies from their next generation mobile networks, stressing on some of the possible dangers, including the capability of their products to spy on their users.
American warnings seem to be falling on deaf ears with a vast majority of their traditional allies in Europe, Latin America and West Asia allowing some role for the Chinese telecommunication giants in their 5G networks. Huawei, the global market leader has been leading the way, having already secured over 50 5G commercial contracts worldwide.
Despite the Trump-Narendra Modi bonhomie, even the Indian government has recently allowed Chinese companies including Huawei to participate in our 5G trials.
Huawei’s lower price points when compared to competitors — Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, Qualcomm and Cisco, its legacy 4G networks that allow clients an easier transition to 5G, and its willingness to sign a “no backdoor” pledge to eliminate spying activities, were some of the factors that nudged the government to make this decision.
Huawei also has a distinct edge in technology superiority with several industry experts saying that it may be 12-18 months ahead of its peers; with the gap only set to increase in future with the decision the previous year to increase the research and development (R&D) budget to an astronomical $15-20 billion.
The impact of the introduction of 5G will be even more profound; 5G wireless networks could have even a 20-plus fold increase in connection speeds from the current levels, with minimal latency that signifies delay in communication. This will enable real time data transmission and make it possible for the mass proliferation of many path-breaking industries including artificial intelligence-driven autonomous transportation, smart manufacturing, virtual and augmented reality, and large-scale proliferation of Internet of Things where billions of devices will be connected to the Internet.
The Centre had earlier announced an ambitious plan to conduct 5G spectrum auctions at the beginning of this year, and carry out the initial roll-outs by the end of 2020. Nevertheless, the Indian telecom sector is attempting to push back the deployments by at least five years because of several reasons, most notably the exorbitant bidding base prices during these difficult economic times.
The dangers that come with the deployment of Chinese technologies can come with any of the foreign vendors we chose, albeit to a much smaller degree, even if we mitigate the possible avenues of data breaches with stringent data security laws, and “no spy” clauses. These overseas companies who own the IPs will also capture the bulk of the business value created by 5G.
The only way around this is the creation of indigenous technologies and companies that are strictly under the Indian ambit, at least in critical 5G components and infrastructure. The R&D costs and capital expenditure for this will amount to hundreds of millions or even billions, an unviable proposition for our private telecom sector that currently has a cumulative debt of over Rs 7.5 lakh crore.
Home-grown technologies are essential from our national security perspective, and will ensure that India could extract maximum value from the novel advancements that will be one of the backbones of our economy in the foreseeable future.
Anil K Antony is a technology entrepreneur; and the convener of INC-Kerala Digital Media
The views expressed are personal