BEIJING, Mar. 5 — Gone are the days when Chinese people wait in long lines at train stations for tickets home during festivals like the Chinese New Year — now they buy tickets on smartphone applications at their fingertips. Also, bicycles have become popular again in China thanks to the new shared bike initiative. Parked at designated areas on sidewalks, the bikes can be easily unlocked by scanning a QR code. Such innovations are made possible thanks to the 4th Generation (4G) mobile networks, which have greatly increased the Internet speed and given birth to what has been known as the Internet-based “sharing economy.” Yet, 4G may soon be a thing of the past, as tech companies around the world compete to launch technological as well as market trials for devices compatible to the 5th Generation (5G) networks, whose mass adoption is expected to be in 2020 at the latest. Given the significantly greater speed — up to 10 gigabits per second — that 5G offers, the next-generation ultra-fast networks will see our way of life change even more than in the 4G era, virtually in everything from how we “interact” with our cars to our homes.
CHINA JOINS TOP PLAYERS The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Geneva-based affiliate of the United Nations that governs issues concerning information and communication technologies, has set 2020 as the target year for completing the international standardization of 5G technologies so as to pave the way for its mass adoption, according to a roadmap the ITU refers to as “IMT-2020.” However, there are signs that the ITU’s timeframe may be too conservative, taking into consideration the boldness shown by international tech giants as they vie for dominance in the 5G industry at this early stage. In a market environment already featuring fierce competition, Chinese telecommunications companies are not only active participants, but also rising stars among the top ranks. For example, ZTE unveiled the prototype of its 5G-compatible phone at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) held between Feb. 26 and March 1 in Barcelona, Spain. Headquartered in southern China’s Shenzhen city — which has become a hub of the country’s digital economy in recent years — the company said it is working on commercializing a range of 5G products by the end of this year. Also at the just-concluded MWC, Huawei, now a world leading telecommunications equipment manufacturer, presented what it claimed to be the world’s first commercial chipset that meets the standards of 5G networks. Having showcased altogether 20 new products, the company reaped eight “Global Mobile Awards” at the international gathering, all of them honoring its achievements in 5G technologies. “Huawei began its research and development (R&D) on 5G in 2009, and in 2018 we have 30 pre-commercial trials across Asia, Europe and the Americas,” Joe Kelly, vice president of Huawei’s international media affairs, told Xinhua. He said the company will implement some of its first commercial contracts for 5G products this year. “We often talk about 5G being a 2020 technology, but the standards are ready, our technology is ready, and the demand from the telecoms companies is real,” Kelly said, adding that 5G is an “industrial-wide global initiative” in which Huawei is “probably at the forefront.” China is extensively involved in the preparation currently underway for the eventual market roll-out of 5G technologies worldwide. The country’s participation covers aspects ranging from international standard-setting to system development and trials as well as the nurturing of a global ecosystem for the industry. According to a blueprint by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the nationwide commercialization of 5G technologies will be realized by 2020, following which a series of major innovations are believed to emerge. “We see indeed a lot of advantages for China to take on a leading role in building and promoting 5G,” said Zhang Zhiwei, Swedish telecommunications multinational Ericsson’s head of marketing in Northeast Asia. Zhang said those advantages include the strong driving force of the Chinese government, the sense of urgency and the real needs of Chinese industries to upgrade and transform, the efficiency of execution of Chinese enterprises, and the scale and vibrant energy of the Chinese economy.
GLOBAL COMPETITION HEATS UP On the global scale, the United States and Asia are widely regarded as two main locomotives driving forward R&D on 5G, while European operators such as Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia admitted in 2017 that Europe had fallen behind. Qualcomm, the U.S. multinational semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company, presented its 5G-based auto-pilot conceptional car at the MWC 2018, building on its earlier version of an automotive platform that supports infotainment, navigation, Wi-Fi and 4G network connection, according to the handout the company provided at the event. “The 5G auto-pilot vehicle is still a concept for us at the moment, but we’ve already developed every apparatus and device for launching 5G connection on a real car,” Andy Zeng, a 5Gtechnical engineer at Qualcomm, told Xinhua. Smart city is another vision whose realization will largely depend on the ubiquitous access to 5G networks in the future. U.S. tech giant Intel is pouring investment into this area, constructing infrastructure with 5G digital access for future smart cities that it envisages to be a system of V2X, meaning “way to everything,” the company’s marketing manager Paul Long said. On the other side of the Atlantic, though, Europe has felt the clock ticking and is struggling to catch up. According to a recent study by the London-based GSM Association, a trade body representing the interests of European mobile network operators, 5G connections in Europe will reach 214 million by 2025, accounting for 31 percent of total mobile connections. By that point, it said, around 75 percent of Europe’s population will be covered by 5G networks. Gunnar Hoekmark, a member of the European Parliament from Sweden, said it is time for Europe to act if it is serious about being the global center for 5G development. He said Europe, with what he called “a loosely written 5G roadmap,” is setting the stage for the United States and Asia and handing them the trophy without even attempting to win it. Meanwhile in Russia, major telecommunications operators, such as MegaFon, MTS, Beeline and Tele2, are trying to keep up with the global trend of 5G development. In 2017, MTS announced that by 2020 it will purchase Ericsson equipment worth 400 million euros (491 million dollars) to prepare for the launch of 5G networks in several Russian regions. According to a government-approved digital economy program, 5G networks will cover eight cities in Russia by 2020. The 2018 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by 11 Russian cities between June 14 and July 15, has given fresh impetus to 5G development in the country. Russian telecommunications operators said they will test 5G connections during the upcoming soccer event. “I believe that by the end of 2018 there will be a significant database on the use of 5Gnetworks,” said Alexander Zharov, head of Russia’s communications regulator Roskomnadzor. When 5G services are popularized, experts say, they will bring a complete revolution of the way people live. Among others, 5G technology will rev up the application of the “Internet of things (IoT)” thanks to its super-fast Internet speed, which is likely to be 100 times faster than that of 4G connections. With the IoT, we can connect virtually every daily appliance to a 5G device, and our homes can be way smarter. Just imagine when you can control everything at your fingertip, from refrigerator and coffeemaker to TV and washing machine. And that is just a foretaste of what is to come. – XINHUA
(Xinhua reporters Jin Jing and Zhang Jiawei in London, Yin Xia in Brussels, Guo Qiuda in Madrid, and Shi Hao in Moscow also contributed to the story.)