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The 5G Race: China And U.S. Battle To Control World’s Fastest Wireless Internet (#GotBitcoin?)

At stake are billions of dollars in royalties, a head start in developing new technologies and national security. The 5G Race: China And U.S. Battle To Control World’s Fastest Wireless Internet (#GotBitcoin?)

The early waves of mobile communications were largely driven by American and European companies. As the next era of 5G approaches, promising to again transform the way people use the internet, a battle is on to determine whether the U.S. or China will dominate.

Equipment makers and telecom operators in both countries are rushing to test and roll out the next generation of wireless networks, which will be as much as 100 times faster than the current 4G standard. Governments are involved as well—with China making the bigger push.

The new networks are expected to enable the steering of driverless cars and doctors to perform complex surgeries remotely. They could power connected appliances in the so-called Internet of Things, and virtual and augmented reality. Towers would beam high-speed internet to devices, reducing reliance on cables and Wi-Fi.

At the Shenzhen headquarters of Huawei Technologies Co., executives and researchers gathered in July to celebrate one of its technologies being named a critical part of 5G. The man who invented it, Turkish scientist Erdal Arikan, was greeted with thunderous applause. The win meant a stream of future royalties and leverage for the company—and it marked a milestone in China’s quest to dominate the technology.

At a Verizon Communications Inc. lab in Bedminster, N.J., recently, computer screens showed engineers how glare-resistant window coatings can interfere with delivering 5G’s superfast internet into homes. A model of a head known as Mrs. Head tested the audio quality of new wireless devices. Verizon began experimenting with 5G in 11 markets last year.

Nearby, in Murray Hill, N.J., Nokia Corp. engineers are testing a 5G-compatible sleeve that factory workers could wear like an arm brace during their shifts to steer drones or monitor their vital signs. The company began its 5G-related research in 2007.

While the economics of 5G are still being worked out, boosters say the potential payoffs are immense. Companies that own patents stand to make billions of dollars in royalties. Countries with the largest and most reliable networks will have a head start in developing the technologies enabled by faster speeds. The dominant equipment suppliers could give national intelligence agencies and militaries an advantage in spying on or disrupting rival countries’ networks.

“As we face the future, we know deep down that the birth of 5G standards represents a new beginning,” Huawei’s chairman, Eric Xu, told the audience at the company event.

Hans Vestberg, Verizon’s chief executive officer, speaks of the technology in equally dramatic terms. “We are strong believers that 5G [will have] a very transformative effect on many things in our society,” he said. “Consumer, media, entertainment…whole industries.”

By some measures, China is ahead. Since 2013, a government-led committee has worked with China’s mobile carriers and gear-makers on testing and development. The state-led approach, combined with an enormous domestic market, ensures that Chinese companies such as Huawei will sell large quantities of 5G equipment and gain valuable experience in the process.

In the U.S., where the government typically avoids mandating and coordinating efforts by the private sector, much of the experimentation has been led by companies such as AT&T Inc., Verizon, Samsung Electronics Co. and Nokia. Last week, tech companies including Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. argued in comments filed to the U.S. Trade Representative that proposed tariffs would raise the cost of routers, switches and other goods, slowing development of 5G.

Three of the major carriers plan to roll out 5G service in select cities later this year, though most mobile devices compatible with the new network won’t be ready until early 2019.

The race to 5G has come with tit-for-tat regulatory moves aimed at securing each country’s advantage. In March, the Trump administration blocked Singapore-based Broadcom’s acquisition of U.S. chip giant and 5G leader Qualcomm Inc., citing concerns that Broadcom would cut the company’s research and development funds and allow Chinese companies to pull ahead in 5G.

In July, China squelched Qualcomm’s planned acquisition of Dutch chip maker NXP Semiconductors NV, a deal that would have helped Qualcomm profit from 5G investments in new markets such as connected cars.

Much of the U.S. unease stems from the rising clout of Huawei, which was labeled a national-security threat, along with ZTE Corp. , by a Congressional panel in 2012 that said those firms’ equipment could be used for spying on Americans. In August, aligning itself with the U.S., Australia said it was banning Huawei and ZTE equipment from its 5G network. Other U.S. allies are studying similar bans.

Huawei and ZTE have consistently denied providing government agencies with backdoor access to their products. Beijing has likewise pushed to replace or sideline U.S. high-tech firms within China’s networks on fears of espionage.

China has made 5G a priority after failing to keep pace with Western countries in developing previous generations of mobile networks. The U.S. dominated 4G, built in the late 2000s, much in the same way Europeans controlled 3G standards. The American lead in 4G has been a boon to companies such as Apple Inc. and Qualcomm, and helped give rise to a host of consumer smartphone applications from the U.S.

Since 2015, China has built about 350,000 cell sites, compared with fewer than 30,000 in the U.S., according to an August study by consulting firm Deloitte. It also noted China has 14.1 sites for every 10,000 people, compared with 4.7 in the U.S. That matters for 5G, because the new networks will require much larger numbers of cell sites than 4G.

The physical manifestation of China’s push is a government-run 5G lab near the Great Wall north of Beijing. The sprawling facility is festooned with base stations and prototype mobile devices, with indoor and outdoor facilities for each of the major Chinese carriers and equipment makers, according to engineers and executives who have visited the site.

Trials are coordinated by a consortium of tech firms, universities and research institutes that operate under China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The group aims to wrap up tests by the end of the year.

After those trials conclude, state-run carrier China Mobile , the world’s largest mobile operator by subscribers, will follow up with its own tests in 17 cities, according to Chih-Lin I, a former Bell Labs researcher and the company’s chief scientist of mobile technologies. China’s 5G service is expected to be ready for commercial use by 2020.

The faster generation of networks relies on sophisticated technology that allows wireless airwaves to be used more efficiently. Plans call for it to run on high-frequency millimeter waves, which can handle more data but can’t travel as far as lower-frequency waves used by older networks. That means 5G will rely on clusters of antennae as well as decentralized data centers close to consumers and businesses—requiring big investments in infrastructure. The networks are expected to have the speed and responsiveness needed for advances such as driverless cars, which must instantaneously communicate with traffic signals, other cars and their surroundings.

China’s bid to steer the 5G future depends heavily on setting technical standards the rest of the world will have to follow—and pay royalties and licensing fees to use. It has played an aggressive role in the international telecom industry collective that sets global standards.

Experts inside and outside China expect Qualcomm and other Western firms to end up with a majority of the essential patents once the standards are fully determined, but China is making progress.

In 2009, as Huawei’s 5G push began, it recruited Tong Wen, a former senior researcher at now-defunct equipment maker Nortel Networks Corp., to set up a research lab in Ottawa. While flipping through an academic journal, Mr. Tong had stumbled on “polar coding,” a novel method for correcting errors in data transmission invented by Mr. Arikan, the Turkish scientist.

Huawei poured resources into developing it, and the government leaned on Chinese companies to vote for it en masse at a key standard-setting meeting at the Peppermill Resort in Reno, Nev., in 2016. The result was a tense fight that lasted past midnight with proponents of a rival technology favored by most Western firms, according to one standards expert who was there.

“The Chinese decided this was important,” the expert said. “This was one of the biggest political battles we’ve ever seen.”

The meeting ended with a compromise: Polar codes will be adopted for part of the standard, giving Huawei ownership of a critical patent. The company has spent more than $1 billion on 5G research and development so far.

The U.S. government has stopped short of mandating efforts by the private sector, opening the door to more diffuse outcomes determined by the work of individual companies. In January, a senior National Security Council official floated the idea of rivaling Beijing with a government-led effort to build a nationalized wireless network, but regulators and officials said it was too expensive and unrealistic.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission announced a plan to speed up the build-out of 5G networks by overriding some local rules and fees governing the deployment of small cellular transmitters, an important component of the infrastructure. The plan is expected to win approval in late September.

The government has funded some academic research that has paved the way for commercial technologies. One agency, the National Science Foundation, is coordinating an effort to build test beds for 5G and future generations of wireless networks.

“The United States is very much behind in this space” relative to Europe, South Korea, Japan and China, said a 2015 internal NSF report on 5G network development.

Thyaga Nandagopal—a former researcher at Bell Labs who is a director at the foundation—is leading the test bed project, in which companies, academics and government agencies will be able to test 5G and other wireless network applications in tandem. Nearly 30 U.S., European and Asian companies have committed $50 million of capital and equipment over the next seven years, while the U.S. government has pledged to invest another $50 million. In New York, an NSF-funded site run by academic institutions including Columbia University aims to launch a small pilot phase by the beginning of January.

Mr. Nandagopal said that China’s coordinated investments have put it in a “pretty good pole position” but that the NSF’s efforts are focused on wireless developments after 2020, rather than the early years of 5G deployment.

“We can invest our money strategically and still get better results than anyone else,” he said.

Some American telecom companies are staking claims to rooftops and light poles where they can position small cells that enable the faster networks, and pressing equipment and device makers to create 5G-compatible products.

For all the investment, industry experts note the standards for 5G aren’t fully written and wireless carriers are still figuring out how they can best profit from the service.

At a 5G forum in Santa Clara, Calif., in July, Henning Schulzrinne, a former chief technology officer at the FCC, said operators would also have to find a way to drastically reduce the cost of data to make applications such as augmented or virtual reality affordable enough to sell to consumers over 5G. Some of those applications could work using 4G or Wi-Fi instead.

“Who’s going to stream AR or VR if it’s going to cost them $10 per minute?” he said.

John Donovan, chief executive of AT&T’s communications business, said the company’s researchers have been among the most prolific writers of 5G standards, but it is being cautious as it puts the technology in the field.

“To deploy technology in advance of need, before the use cases are there—you’re wasting money,” he said.

Executives at Huawei have also sought to temper 5G expectations. Before an audience of analysts at an annual meeting at the Shenzhen headquarters in April, Mr. Xu, Huawei’s chairman, said that “the entire industry and also governments around the world have regarded 5G too high, to the extent that it’s going to be the digital infrastructure for everything.”

Huawei and China Mobile will push ahead with 5G on a large scale regardless, according to executives from both companies.

“5G is such an important strategic project for China—kitchen sink, all the resources,” said Edison Lee, a telecom analyst at investment bank Jefferies in Hong Kong. “Because if they get their foot in the door for 5G, they get their foot in the door of 6G, 7G, 8G.”

Inside Verizon’s 5G Game Plan

CEO Hans Vestberg discusses what 5G will mean for consumers and why Verizon remains focused on its network.

Verizon Communications Inc.’s new chief executive, Hans Vestberg, has taken the helm as the wireless giant pursues a bet that providing a strong network is better than trying to own the content that flows through it.

Verizon plans to roll out the next, faster generation of wireless networks, or 5G, for its residential customers in four cities before the end of the year. The service uses higher-frequency spectrum known as millimeter waves, which can carry more data than other types of spectrum but can’t travel as far or penetrate many hard materials.

The company has thus far opted not to pursue the transformational mergers and acquisitions like AT&T Inc.’s purchase of Time Warner or T-Mobile US Inc.’s proposed purchase of Sprint Corp. In an interview, Mr. Vestberg, who was CEO of Ericsson AB before joining Verizon in 2017, discusses what 5G will mean for consumers and why providing the pipes is the best position for the telecom carrier to be in. Edited excerpts follow:

Q: What differences will consumers see with 5G?

MR. VESTBERG: 5G has eight different currencies. The currency is something I can give to a consumer or enterprise, things like the peak data rate, the mobile data volumes, the mobility—or how fast can you drive and still keep the signal. Other currencies include network reliability, latency [which is the time it takes for two devices to communicate], and how many connected devices you can have per square kilometer. With 4G, you can have roughly 1,000 connected devices per square kilometer. It is one million on 5G. There also is the energy efficiency and service deployment time, or how long it takes to connect to the internet.

Q: What does that mean for, say, a home?

MR. VESTBERG: There will be lots of connected devices in homes in the future, such as smart refrigerators, cameras and tablets. We can handle more of them from a 5G mobile network because of its capacity.

Today with 4G, you can have 200 milliseconds on the network in latency; with 5G, that will go down to 10 milliseconds. What can you do with 10 milliseconds? You can have intense online gaming that is totally mobile. You can have [retail-store] transactions on mobile phones on the mobile network. You wouldn’t do that on 4G today. You would sit at a fixed location with a fiber straight to a computer.

Q: When will consumers understand 5G, given the lag time between building networks and compatible devices coming to market?

MR. VESTBERG: They will understand it when they have a 5G phone in their hands.

We have announced that we will have one 5G product from Motorola coming out early next year. It is a chipset that can be clipped to an existing phone to make it compatible with a 5G network. It is much quicker to build that than a new 5G-compatible phone.

Q: One of your rivals said there is no point in investing in 5G technology until there are real-world applications for it.

MR. VESTBERG: This is the same thing we heard before 4G came to market. Everyone was screaming, “What’s the use case? Why do we need it?” The phones came and then bam! The innovation came from Silicon Valley.

Use cases for business will include things like a cordless factory, where robots are operated remotely, without cords. We have consumer groups working with application developers. We have a small and medium size business group, an enterprise group talking to enterprise customers, an Internet of Things group. We’re building the networks at the same time.

Q: Do you feel comfortable that rain, leaves, a FedEx truck aren’t going to disrupt 5G service?

MR. VESTBERG: Yes, yes, yes.

Q: Is video the main application of 5G for in-home broadband? You recently announced partnerships with Apple TV and Google’s YouTube TV for your 5G residential broadband customers.

MR. VESTBERG: What do you need the bandwidth for in your home? Usually it’s entertainment, but you can do other things as well. If you have the speeds and Wi-Fi at home, you’re probably going to do a hundred other things as well. You can have security cameras, virtual-reality learning, smart-home products like thermostats and lighting. These things can’t operate at the same time reliably today, but with 5G they can.

Q: How will 5G affect Oath, Verizon’s digital media and advertising unit that includes properties such as Yahoo Finance, HuffPost and Tumblr?

MR. VESTBERG: They are working a lot with media and entertainment. They are working on virtual reality/augmented reality. We have Ryot, one of the most advanced digital studios in the world. We are working with them—what can they do with their assets in the 5G world?

Q: Will people pay for it? What’s the path to monetizing 5G for the consumer?

MR. VESTBERG: You have to be innovative here. There are going to be more connected devices, so the number of things you can and will connect is going to grow, and presumably there will be some revenue associated with that.

Q: Does the unlimited phone plan continue in a 5G world?

MR. VESTBERG: We haven’t gotten that far. We aren’t sharing our commercial plans from a confidential point of view.

Q: As a network provider, how do you benefit from the success of an application like Uber? If a customer uses an unlimited plan to summon their Uber, what’s the incremental economic benefit you get?

MR. VESTBERG: Overall, if there are no applications, you don’t need a network and vice versa. Applications won’t come unless they have a network that can support them, and networks lead to more experimentation and the development of apps. We have created such a fantastic network that people can innovate on—that’s our best asset.

Q: So you’re confident you will recoup the investment in the network?

MR. VESTBERG: You would invest in the network anyhow. You need to be leading on technology. We are in the business of delivering data and speeds and throughputs for our customers, so if we aren’t investing in the latest technology, we are going to be at a disadvantage.

Q: Do you see China as ahead of the U.S. in rolling out 5G, and does it matter?

MR. VESTBERG: No, I don’t see it. We’ve already announced that we are rolling out 5G in four cities this year. I haven’t heard that it will be rolled out in any cities in China this year.

Q: Is there a threat that tension between Washington and Beijing potentially scuttles any piece of your business or progress on 5G?

MR. VESTBERG: No. I don’t see that.

Q: You’ve been clear that you have the assets you want. Are you concerned about the heavy investment required to roll out a 5G network and that it might take a while to actually see the benefits?

MR. VESTBERG: We have places where we want to provide network connectivity only. There are some services Verizon can provide—we have a connected-car product called Hum, for example—and others where we need a partner. In some areas we will provide connectivity, a device that brings Wi-Fi into the home, but Apple and YouTube will provide the content. I can work with anyone to get maximum usage of what I would say is the best network.

Across The U.S., 5G Network Builders Run Into Local Resistance

The new technology requires a lot more cell towers than the old networks. But residents and local officials are pushing back.

Residents of Denver’s Riviera apartments were surprised earlier this year when a roughly 30-foot-tall green pole appeared a few feet in front of their building entrance. The pole, installed by Verizon Communications Inc. and laden with cellular antennas, was designed to improve cellphone service in the area, but the residents complained about the placement.

Months later, it was gone. But that was just a small taste of what’s to come across the country: Millions of Americans will soon encounter similar poles or notice antennas sprouting on existing structures, like utility poles, street lamps and traffic lights, all over their neighborhoods. All four national cellphone companies are pushing to build out their networks with a profusion of small, local cells to keep their data-hungry customers satisfied and lay the groundwork for fifth-generation, or 5G, service.

Those plans face pushback in many places, and not just from residents. Officials in some cities say they don’t have enough staff to process applications for dozens or even hundreds of new installations. In some smaller towns, officials say they lack the expertise to review the new technology, though they’re working fast to get up to speed.

In Wilton Manors, Fla., Mayor Gary Resnick says the Miami suburb needs more time to draft an ordinance to govern the installation of the new technology. And there are seasonal issues. “We generally restrict construction in the rights of way during hurricane season for obvious reasons,” he says.

Just Around The Corner

More than 100,000 small cells are already wired up across the U.S., according to industry research firm S&P Global. Cellphone companies plan to boost their capacity with several hundred thousand more cells to improve existing service and prepare for 5G service, which they see as a potential competitor for cable and fiber optics, among other things.

Some of the local resistance is rooted in how small cells work. Companies can usually find space on private property for large cell towers with a range of several miles. Small cells reach only a few hundred feet, so carriers need many more sites, usually on public land, for the system to work.

Cellphone companies don’t have much choice if they want to keep up with their customers’ appetite for data, says Jonathan Adelstein, chief executive of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, whose members include wireless carriers. “People wonder why they might be having a dropped call or slow video,” Mr. Adelstein says. “Then they have a vocal minority that are ruining it for everybody” by opposing the expansion of cellular networks.

Small Packages, Big Impact

Conventional cell towers will provide 5G service in many places, but they can’t do it all by themselves, especially in cities. That’s where small cells come in.

Denver resident Brad Cameron says a new two-story pole that sprang up near his condo last winter “clearly has improved my cell service.” But he wants to keep new poles to a minimum by making cellphone companies share space on the same structures. “The concern I’ve got is that instead of trees, we’re looking at a forest of small cell towers,” he says.

Denver City Council member Wayne New says the government is encouraging carriers to cooperate with the local electric utility to use more existing street poles.

Policy Battles

State and federal policy makers are mostly backing the wireless carriers. Federal Communications Commission rules passed in March exempt small-cell deployments from certain historic-preservation and environmental reviews. Another FCC rule slated for a vote this month seeks to lower local fees and would set 60-day or 90-day limits for local governments act on permit applications. A bill in Congress would deem small-cell applications granted if local governments fail to act on a request within 31 days. Dozens of state laws also restrict local governments’ control over small-cell projects.

“It’s all gamesmanship right now,” says Angela Stacy, vice president at consultant SmartWorks Partners LLC, who advises local governments on telecommunications policy. “The carriers have basically launched a three-pronged attack” with the support of regulators and federal and state legislators.

Officials in San Jose, Calif., have tried to parry that offensive by fast-tracking installations for carriers that have agreed to help fund a local internet-access initiative. The Silicon Valley city has licensed space on light poles for a few hundred dollars per installation, using the money to connect low-income residents to high-speed broadband at home. AT&T and Verizon have signed on to the plan and are gearing up to install equipment.

“We tried to prove to the telecom industry that cities are not the problem,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says. “We appreciate the industry’s position that too much red tape can get in the way.”

At the same time, though, Mr. Liccardo says the city and its allies are “battling the industry mightily” on the federal and state level, lobbying to block policies they consider a handout to cellphone companies because they would limit the fees the carriers can be charged to install and operate small cells.

“These poles are increasingly becoming valuable real estate,” he says. “If cities can’t manage their own infrastructure—that their taxpayers paid to install—it puts them at a considerable disadvantage.”

AT&T strategic-planning executive Jason Porter says cities’ needs vary but the company’s experience with San Jose is a “win-win.”

“Every concern that a city manager has is a viable concern,” Mr. Porter says. “San Jose’s a good example of a location that we’ve been able to work with.”

Making Adjustments

Other local officials say the installations could widen the digital divide between well-connected residents and those with limited service. In Maryland’s Montgomery County, which covers rural communities and several suburbs of Washington, D.C., county planners are working on a fee structure for small cells. They want rental rates to vary depending on population density to encourage more rural deployment.

But in general, such fees take away from construction that ultimately benefits the public, says Rudy Reyes, a vice president of public policy for Verizon. “Capital budgets are limited, and we would rather use that money to invest in infrastructure and investment for our customers,” he says.

Construction isn’t slowing down in Denver, home of the since-removed pole in front of the Riviera apartments. The city now has nearly 100 small cells, with more than 250 additional installations planned. But the local government has set new guidelines to control where companies place their small cells, which prompted Verizon to take down a handful that it had already installed.

“They were willing to adjust to be good neighbors,” says Jon Reynolds, a program manager for Denver’s public-works department.

Verizon’s Mr. Reyes says Denver has been an overall success so far. “We try to work with these residents to address legitimate concerns,” he says.

What 5G Will Mean to Consumers—and When

In the long term, plenty. But the changes will come slowly.

Each of the modern leaps in wireless network technology has brought distinct change: The second generation—aka 2G—allowed for voice transmission, 3G ushered in the app revolution, and 4G brought a drastic speed boost.

Now, the highly anticipated 5G wireless networks are expected to be powerful enough to bring us mass-market automated cars and real-time virtual reality, yet practical enough to replace wired home broadband.

But, while 5G will begin rolling out to consumers by year-end, fulfillment of its more lofty promises might not happen for years, experts say. And a prohibitively costly infrastructure build-out that involves unsolved challenges also stands in the way. In short, groundbreaking 5G applications could be ahead, but at first it might not seem all that different from what we have today.

Chief among 5G’s promises is that its use of shorter-frequency radio waves could allow it to carry enough extra data to vastly extend the reach of internet connections. Current 4G LTE networks can handle smart deadbolts and dog collars, but they don’t have the bandwidth to allow for complex, self-controlled systems—think autonomous cars that communicate with each other to choreograph a synchronized parking effort in the heart of New York City.

5G is about connecting “things with other things,” says Sandra Rivera, senior vice president for the Network Platforms Group at Intel Corp., one of the leading chip makers that are engulfed in a global race to develop and roll out the technology, along with telecoms such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

Latency—the lag between when a request for a website or video is made and when the network responds—will have a big part to play in the success of 5G networks. Ultimately, 5G latency could be reduced to one-tenth of what it is with 4G, according to the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency that develops technical network standards. The future of virtual reality and augmented reality depends greatly on this.

“With higher speeds and lower latency rates, our mobile 5G network will eventually unlock a number of new, exciting experiences for our customers,” says AT&T’s chief technology officer, Andre Fuetsch.

AT&T is aiming high. It announced in August that it would equip a community in Texas with 5G to enable pilot programs with the ultimate goal of creating a synchronized urban transportation network—including flying taxis from Uber and autonomous vehicle fleets from startup Drive.ai.

Augmented-reality headset maker Magic Leap formed a partnership with AT&T in July to take advantage of the carrier’s 5G ambitions. Magic Leap’s headset requires powerful processing to seamlessly overlay graphics on the surrounding environment and adjust the view in real time.

Infrastructure Challenge

Among the biggest challenges for the fulfillment of 5G’s potential: Because 5G waves are positioned so much closer together, they can’t travel very far on their own. 4G towers currently can deliver service for up to 10 miles. True high-bandwidth 5G towers can only deliver service up to 1,000 feet. 5G waves also can have difficulty penetrating walls and windows, and could even be hindered by new leaves on trees during the spring.

Carriers say the solution to those problems is more cell towers, but that presents its own difficulties. Making 5G a widespread reality, even within cities, requires thousands of new towers. Building all those extra 5G-equipped towers is expensive, especially for a country as sprawling as the U.S.

“Nobody has figured out how to build that infrastructure out yet,” technology consultant Chetan Sharma says. “The math required to make that work isn’t practical.”

As a result, the first iterations of 5G to reach consumers likely won’t be “true 5G” that’s powerful enough to enable a host of glitzy applications, Mr. Sharma says. Speeds should certainly be faster, but some carriers say 5G will act like an extension of the main technology behind 4G, known as LTE (for Long Term Evolution).

These initial 5G rollouts will run on low- or mid-band spectrum, meaning speed would be 10% to 20% faster than current 4G service with low-band 5G, and up to three times as fast for mid-band 5G, Mr. Sharma estimates. Lower-band spectrum rollouts require less cell-tower infrastructure.

The first applications will include fixed wireless access for the home, sports venues equipped with remote-controlled high-resolution cameras, and connected shuttle services in cities, according to several large carriers.

Early Days

AT&T will begin introducing 5G in 12 U.S. cities this year, with the disclaimer that “actual speeds are lower and will vary” from what is theoretically possible, according to a company announcement in August. Mr. Feutsch says lower latency and faster speeds will be among the first effects consumers will notice.

Verizon has similar efforts under way, focused on providing home broadband via 5G.

Even with its initial limitations, 5G’s technical improvements could tear up the playbook for how people get internet. Wired and wireless technology could blur: As the wireless-centered companies pose new threats in markets dominated by cable companies, so too could Comcast and others adopt the technology to compete.

There likely won’t be any 5G smartphones in the U.S. until next year. In August, Sprint announced a partnership with LG Electronics to launch a 5G phone in the first half of 2019.

For Qualcomm Technologies Inc., a leading smartphone chip maker, the first phase of 5G that will be rolled out next year is focused on mobile broadband—smartphones, tablets, connected PCs—says Danny Tseng, a technical marketing staff manager at the company.

Flashier consumer applications, such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication—a key step in making autonomous cars a reality—and digital TV broadcasting aren’t part of the focus of the first 5G rollout, Mr. Tseng adds.

5G Wireless Technology Raises Security Fears

As more devices are connected, the potential dangers expand.

By now, the potential benefits of next-generation 5G wireless are well known, such as huge new networks of connected devices, and nifty autonomous vehicles.

Less understood are the security risks—from huge new networks of connected devices, and nifty autonomous vehicles.

The fact is that almost every advance in 5G comes with a new set of security worries. Perhaps the biggest concern is the expected flood of connected household devices, many of which already have been hacked and used in denial-of-service attacks, like one in late 2016 that made major services such as Netflix and Twitter unreachable for a day.

With 5G, the telecommunications system itself will become so central to everyday life that experts fear it will create an ever-larger target for malicious actors. There also are worries that 5G will make it easier for hackers to turn autonomous vehicles, medical procedures and implantable devices into lethal weapons.

As 5G facilitates a vast expansion of devices and networks, “these start to become large targets, and ripe for attack,” says Bruce Potter, chief information security officer at Expel Inc., a cybersecurity startup in Herndon, Va. “We have a fairly large problem ahead to figure out how to secure all the components” of 5G, he adds.

The China Threat

U.S. vulnerability could grow even more if domestic companies lose the race with companies abroad to dominate 5G technology. And that is particularly true if the industry comes to rely on Chinese equipment, many U.S. policy makers say.

“Building and designing a telecom network gives you an intelligence advantage,” says James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “If you’re going to burgle a house…it’s easier to burgle” if you built it, he says.

Many U.S. officials say their approach to securing the 5G future is working so far. “It’s a challenge, no way around it, but it’s something everyone I’ve talked to is taking seriously,” says Brendan Carr, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission. “We’re bringing all the right people and agencies to bear, so we’re in good shape in that sense.”

Not everyone agrees, though. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, for one, has chided the agency for moving slowly on providing the airwaves that 5G will demand. That could mean the U.S. is falling behind in the race to dominate 5G technology. Moreover, the U.S. government’s response so far to cybersecurity—and 5G security in particular—has been criticized as haphazard, because of confusing lines of authority.

DHS Limits

The government’s lead agency for many cybersecurity issues, the Department of Homeland Security, acknowledges it doesn’t have the authority to prevent some types of problems.

“DHS is not a regulatory agency, and our authority to prohibit use of software only applies to Federal civilian executive-branch departments and agencies,” an agency official says.

A few White House advisers on the National Security Council earlier this year recommended what amounts to a nationalized 5G system, according to a leaked version of their report. But telecommunications firms and lawmakers of both parties roundly criticized the idea, and its main proponent, an Air Force general, is no longer assigned to the NSC.

Now the government is stepping up efforts to work with business to plug vulnerabilities.

“I don’t want to stifle innovation, and 5G is going to encourage all types of innovation, so we continue to work with industries to make sure we’re building security in,” says Rep. Jim Langevin (D., R.I.), a founder of the House Cybersecurity Caucus.

For example, federal officials are working with many device makers—including household and medical device makers—to make it easier to head off attacks.

In addition, the U.S. Congress recently passed legislation that bars government agencies and contractors from using telecommunications equipment made by Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. , leaders in China’s 5G effort. The move expands on previous restrictions that Congress has adopted since concerns began to be raised about the firms’ equipment around 2012. The worry was that Huawei and ZTE were building back doors into their network equipment that the Chinese government could tap into.

A spokesman for Huawei, which denies such accusations, says that restricting the purchase of its equipment in the U.S. “actually does nothing to enhance the real national security of the U.S. It does nothing to identify real security risks or protect the security of the global technology supply chain.”

ZTE didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Major carriers have already stopped using the Chinese companies’ network equipment. But there are fears among security experts that China eventually could gain so much power in the market for 5G network equipment that U.S. companies would have no choice but to use Chinese equipment.

Software Rules

Hardware is expected to be less critical to future networks, as software does more of the work, a shift that will boost security in many respects, experts say. Software-defined networks, or SDNs, make security much more flexible and resilient, according to industry experts. For instance, if there’s a breach, it can be contained fairly quickly to a small area.

But there are always trade-offs. As software becomes more important, defects and bugs in the coding can provide great points of entry and tools for attackers, according to some experts.

Some lawmakers, meanwhile, say more dramatic steps might be necessary soon. A number are discussing incentives such as legislation that would give businesses, including telecom firms, legal protection from lawsuits provided they build in sufficient cybersecurity measures.

With 5G on the Horizon, Startups See Potential in Small Data Hubs

Tech companies and private-equity firms hope to capitalize on the need for speed in the new wireless service.

Some startups are betting that the next generation of wireless technology will force data-center operators to think small.

That expectation stems from the importance next-generation wireless standards place on speed as much as on bandwidth. The 5G specifications expected to be finished next year will allow mobile equipment to process information more quickly, reducing the time it takes between a device’s call for information and its response from a network.

Massive data centers favored by companies like Google owner Alphabet Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. are often too remote to take advantage of those timesaving improvements. Internet traffic must also flow through chains of network hubs run by third-party operators that aren’t guaranteed to be close to users.

With that in mind, startups are laying the groundwork for miniature facilities to process data quickly for specific towns and neighborhoods.

“It doesn’t really matter how fast your handset is if you’ve got to travel 300 miles” to fetch data, says Mike Hagan, chief executive of data-center designer EdgeMicro Corp.

The Centreville, Va., startup is planning to deploy as many as 30 compact data centers near cell towers and other well-connected places close to users.

The concept has attracted some small bets from tech companies and private-equity firms, including Berkshire Partners, which joined a Series C investment in Vapor IO Inc., another company looking to find a market niche by supplying smaller data centers.

Development Plans

The companies wagering on these so-called edge data centers don’t expect to replace large data centers. Most of today’s mobile apps, streaming videos and social media work fine when delivered from the nearest server a few fractions of a second away.

Developers of small data centers say their buildings will work first with data that is extremely time-sensitive, to improve the performance of services like live video and videogames that can be affected by delays of just milliseconds.

“It’s really important for us to be super close” to do that, Vapor Chief Executive Cole Crawford says.

Eventually, small data centers could be important to the development of devices like next-generation drones and virtual-reality headsets.

Vapor is developing miniaturized data centers that can be placed in small network facilities or at the base of cell towers, where wireless antennas and fiber-optic connections are already on hand. Tower operator Crown Castle International Inc. has invested in the company and plans to provide land for some of the roughly 100 small data centers expected to be online next year.

Vapor and EdgeMicro plan to generate revenue the same way established companies like Equinix Inc. and Digital Realty Trust Inc. do through bigger, more centralized data centers. The startups will charge internet companies for space, power and network connections in their data centers.

Closer To Reality

Big tech companies are preparing for the emergence of smaller data centers.

Amazon, for instance, developed software specifically designed to filter data from smart devices and route the most time-sensitive data for local processing. Microsoft Corp.’s cloud-computing division developed a similar software suite tailored for smart devices.

“While still early, the edge now appears to be shifting from concept to reality, with first movers now appearing to have momentum,” says Colby Synesael, an analyst at New York-based consulting firm Cowen & Co.

Beware the 5G Hype: Wireless Rivals Fuel Confusion

AT&T, Verizon put their own spin on wireless standards to appear cutting-edge; some decry fake 5G.

What’s 5G wireless service? On this, companies can agree: It’s what comes after 4G.

Asking for a more specific definition of the wireless industry’s brand new thing invites controversy. U.S. telecom companies have started slapping the 5G label on a smorgasbord of technologies, sowing confusion in an industry not known for its simplicity.

AT&T Inc. gained attention in recent days for putting “5GE” labels atop some customers’ Android smartphone screens. The E stands for “evolution,” a sign of the added bandwidth those phones can access as the company lays the groundwork for full-fledged 5G service.

In a December blog post, AT&T Wireless executive Kevin Petersen referred to the upgrades as “an important set of technologies that AT&T is rolling out” while the company also installs fully-compliant 5G wireless infrastructure in a dozen cities.

Despite the name, the 5GE-labeled phones are still only capable of connecting to 4G service. T-Mobile US Inc . technology chief Neville Ray said in a blog post the move was “duping customers into thinking they’re getting something they’re not.” Verizon Communications Inc. also criticized the tag, arguing real 5G service must use fresh hardware and new radio technology to deserve the moniker.

“Verizon won’t take an old phone and just change the 4 in the status bar to a 5,” the company’s chief technology officer, Kyle Malady, wrote this week in an open letter published online and as full-page newspaper ads.

Yet Verizon’s critics say it, too, has blurred the line, by focusing its early 5G service on home broadband instead of cellphone improvements. The company developed its own 5G-like specifications years ago to make sure it could get equipment in the field early. The company will upgrade that gear later with new machines subject to the same cutting-edge specifications that other carriers are using.

Verizon spokesman Kevin King said the company has “been pretty clear from the beginning that we’re developing a mobile solution” as well as home broadband. “We’re able to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

The cable industry joined the fray this week at CES 2019, the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, by unveiling “10G,” a reference to cable companies’ goal of providing wired broadband service at 10-gigabit speeds. The acronym is unrelated to cellphone carriers’ fifth-generation wireless technology, though the parallel branding wasn’t lost on wireless executives.

Cable companies want to highlight their efforts to boost broadband speeds beyond the 1-gigabit speeds on offer today, said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for cable trade group NCTA. “Our industry felt like it was important to be in that conversation as well,” he said.

It’s hardly the first time telecom marketers have used engineering patter to muddy the waters. T-Mobile caught flak in 2010 for putting 4G labels atop phone screens connected to its upgraded HSPA+ network, which critics argued was only enhanced 3G. Its executives said the new branding was fair because subscribers’ data bandwidth drastically improved.

All four nationwide carriers cover most urban areas with 4G LTE service, which for now remains the gold standard available to consumers. Carriers will need to install tens of thousands of new radio systems to deliver wireless 5G signals. It could take years before a significant number of people own 5G-capable cellphone models, the first of which are only now hitting the market.

Even as Apple Inc. struggles to sell enough of its latest iPhones, U.S. wireless carriers are attracting plenty of new customers with existing technology. T-Mobile said Wednesday it ended the fourth quarter with one million more phone customers on postpaid plans, which are valued because subscribers with monthly bills tend to stick around longer. Verizon said Tuesday it added 650,000 of those phone plans in the fourth quarter, another positive sign for industry profits.

Official 5G specifications, for the record, are set by 3GPP, a global industry group. Its engineering rules then go to the United Nations-affiliated International Telecommunication Union. Engineers say the process is slow but gives companies the confidence to make sure the billions of dollars they invest in development and manufacturing isn’t headed toward a dead end.

The new 5G standards, like previous generations, will offer cellphone users a big speed boost. They will also support dense antenna arrays that support a swarm of devices and will make networks more responsive, cutting the time it takes for connected machines to process commands. Those advances could give wireless carriers a bigger foothold in sectors like virtual reality, industrial automation and transportation.

Those distinctions might not matter to customers. The public pays more attention to smoother videos and faster downloads than to technical specifications, said Walt Piecyk, an analyst at brokerage BTIG. In that respect, AT&T’s upgrades might deserve their numerical advantage.

“It’s not that complicated,” Mr. Piecyk said. “Consumers will just figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Your questions and comments are greatly appreciated.

Monty H. & Carolyn A.

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