The US, China and the EU are racing to create the first 5G network. The economic and industrial stakes are high.

China and the US in the lead

The race for 5G has begun. The US says the ultra-fast mobile network is a “priority for national security” as well as for the American economy. In May 2018, in fact, Donald Trump claimed he would aim to have a “national, centralized network” by 2019.

But another world power is challenging the US. And according to a study by Analysys Mason, China’s got a good head start on its competition in the West. Proactive policies designed to make China a tech giant by 2025 include financial incentives, a forthcoming elimination of roaming charges, and lowered mobile Internet prices. All of these are helping companies like Huawei and ZTE develop smartphones capable of downloading at 10 Gigabits per second (the speed promised by 5G technology), placing them far ahead of their competitors. Operators such as China Mobile are also expected to roll out next-generation mobile networks before the end of 2018.

The EU lags behind

Far behind, Europe is trying to save face and turn the world’s attention away from the fact that 5G technology is still only at an experimental stage there. At the start of 2018, French operators conducted large-scale tests in several big cities, including Lyon and Lille. But Orange doesn’t plan to roll out 5G on French soil before 2020, and it wouldn’t go mainstream until 2025. Other EU member states have the same deadline, and the EU is worried about this delay. The EU is encouraging the 28 member states and their operators to agree once and for all on the duration of the licenses (20 or 25 years) and on the frequency bands in order to expedite 5G rollout.

Faced with the Chinese “threat,” Trump is getting ready to sign a decree meant to limit the sale of Chinese mobile devices on American soil and, accordingly, penalize Huawei and ZTE, for no real reason.

The promise of a technological leap

So why is 5G such a strategic and commercial issue? The unparalleled speed it promises (a network 100 times faster than current 4G networks) makes 5G a real technological leap forward. Thanks to a rapid connection and almost nonexistent delay that would allow users to be permanently connected, this “mobile network of the future” could help us manage self-driving cars, create VR video games, further develop the “Internet of Things,” streaming industry, and virtual surgery.

According to a study by IHS Markit, 5G could help us generate a flow of 11,300 billion euros in exchange around the world by 2035. The EU and the US estimate the future network could create between 2 and 3 million jobs in their countries. According to a recent report from the French national electronic communications and postal regulation authority (Arcep), 5G technology will finally allow us to “digitize our society and economy” (starting with businesses) and, finally, propel us to the future.

Self-driving cars and smart cities

Above all else, Arcep explains, 5G promises to broaden the scope of technological revolutions already underway. The mobile network could play a role in the development of self-driving cars by bringing Internet connection to cars to “entertain passengers,” and also improve access to information that could help drivers. This could decrease the number of accidents and ease traffic. 5G technology would also be able to connect multiple vehicles.

Arcep also says that the upcoming mobile network will allow for the construction of “smart cities” organized around data, the “cloud” and the Internet of Things, both of which can communicate almost instantly with each other. According to the Arcep report, 5G is an opportunity for “many countries” to generate “possible revenue up to 225 billion euros annually by 2025, which in turn would create important socio-economic benefits.” It would also allow them “to affirm their technological leadership and improve the competitiveness of their companies.” These reasons go well beyond the “national security” argument touted by Donald Trump, who seems poised to nationalize a forthcoming mobile network to prevent “the Chinese from spying on us“.