Caixin
Mar 07, 2019 07:10 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Former China Mobile Chairman: Eight Things to Know About 5G

A China Mobile 5G base station in Tianjin on March 4. Photo: VCG
A China Mobile 5G base station in Tianjin on March 4. Photo: VCG

Editor’s note: Fifth-generation mobile network technology — known commonly as “5G” — was a hot topic at February’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Wang Jianzhou is the former chairman of the world's biggest wireless carrier, China Mobile Ltd., and chairman of the China Association for Public Companies, a national body supervised by the country’s securities regulator. He has attended the event several times in recent years. Below is an edited excerpt of his thoughts on the development and innovation of these super-speedy next generation networks.

1. 5G is coming

Unlike the last few years, the 5G products on display in Barcelona this year are all ready for the mass market. There were live demonstrations. Currently, only five companies — Huawei, Ericsson, ZTE, Nokia and Samsung — are able to fully provide products on 5G networks.

2. Mobile communications are entering the new ‘gigabits’ era

With improved bandwidth and utilization frequency rates, the goal of 5G’s downlink peak rate reaching 20 times the rate of 4G has become a reality. This marks a big leap toward the speed edge of Shannon's theorem for telecom technologies.

Nothing can stop the advance of technology. When the first highway was built, people were perplexed, wondering what the point was of such a wide road. Yet as people enjoyed the benefits after it was put in use, they can no longer imagine going back to the old days when there were no highways. A 5G network is a mega-highway for data.

3. Telecom operators are enthusiastic but rational

In previous years, while manufacturers were keen to showcase 5G technologies, telecom operators were watching. Now, the question for operators is not whether they should build 5G networks but how.

Unlike the exceedingly expensive competition for 3G licenses, cost-sensitive operators are this time relatively calm in bidding for 5G frequencies with auctions now taking place in many countries. For example, Telecom Italia and Vodafone in Italy are cooperating to share 5G infrastructure, in a bid to reduce costs.

4. 5G phones and 5G networks to come out at the same time

Compatible mobile phones usually lag behind the rollout of network infrastructure. But this time around, 5G mobile models have come out at the same time as 5G networks. Chipmakers such as Qualcomm have developed 5G chips and antenna components with a high level of integration, clearing the technology hurdles to make 5G phones. Many device manufacturers have already rolled out their 5G mobile phone models.

5. 5G technology to change lives

A few years ago, 5G in Barcelona was more of a concept and something for exhibition. But this year’s event, I found many practical uses for 5G. For example, participants in some exhibitions could take turns remote-controlling a car located far away in another city. We can imagine a future where drivers can choose to remote-control a car that has to travel along dangerous roads.

6. Manufacturing sector applications come before consumer ones

It will be some time before we see large-scale consumer applications for 5G, as it may be a while before we see a comprehensive rollout of networks available to ordinary consumers.

However, 5G applications in manufacturing sectors are imminent. The concept of private 5G would see a specific industrial setting, such as a factory, construction site or industrial park, have its own closed network which would enable the setup of an independent platform to provide various reliable and low-latency 5G services. Within such a setting companies can improve their efficiency and reduce costs by using autonomous vehicles, robots, and smart control technology. Such a future is reminiscent of the old days when every firm had its own exchange telephone, which was isolated from the general network.

7. The development of applications and platforms is key

For 5G, the development of platforms and applications accounted for 95% of the network’s value, with the remaining 5% on the network itself. During this year’s Barcelona MWC I am very happy to see application developers and venture capitalists also looking for opportunities — it was more than just device manufacturers and mobile carriers.

8. Foldable phones are a game-changer for the smartphone industry

Until foldable phones emerged, the structure of the smartphones hadn’t changed much since the iPhone was released in 2007. A hybrid of a smartphone and a tablet, foldable phones will have an enormous impact and may even have great implications for how personal computers, software and applications work.

Flexible AMOLED (Active Matrix Organic Light-Emitting Diode) displays have existed for some time. Foldable phone models appeared in Barcelona five years ago, but the commercial rollouts came only this year.

The obstacles in the way of foldable phone commercialization have had nothing to do with wireless technology itself, but with the workmanship of cover panels and the base of the bendable screens — an area of chemical industry which involves polymer materials.

I'm happy to see this obstacle has been cleared. The success tells us that a comprehensive industrial ecosystem is a prerequisite for a solid phone-making industry.

Translated by Mo Yelin, Isabelle Li and Tang Ziyi

This commentary has been edited for length and clarity.

Contact reporter Jason Tan (jasontan@caixin.com)

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