Analysis 5G mobile networks have been held out as the future of not just mobile communications but also smart cities, the internet of things, rural broadband access, and countless other future innovations.
But with the standard still only partly finished, and with lots of additions and adjustments expected in the coming years, one of the biggest concerns is that we will end up with incompatible equipment as different manufacturers adopt different approaches.
Recently, for example, in the US, AT&T has been heavily criticized, and been at the end of a Sprint lawsuit, for adding a "5G E" symbol on its phones when they don't actually support a proper 5G standard.
And so last week, the organization that represents mobile operators globally, the GSM Association, did the smart thing and proposed a new Europe-wide testing and certification system so everyone can be confident that when something says it is 5G, it is 5G, and will work across all systems. The proposal will be a main topic of conversation at the GSMA's meeting in Barcelona next week.
Such a process would "give confidence in network security while maintaining competition and innovation in the supply of network equipment and data affordability to end-users," the GSMA notes.
A great idea and exactly the sort of dull-but-essential work that trade associations carry out all the time. Everyone in the industry working together to ensure compatibility and to provide a secure foundation on top of which they can then compete. No one can disagree with that approach.
Or can they?
Yes, they can. Because here comes the CTIA, America's mobile industry body, and it is not all happy with the concept of a common agreed-upon standard.
"The US wireless industry leads the world in 5G deployment and investment," an announcement from the organization proudly noted, before adding: "The supply chain necessary to support next-generation wireless networks around the world is a global issue."
Yes, we're all agreed on that so let's all have a common testing… "GSMA’s release in Europe on Thursday does not represent the views of all wireless operators or all regions."
Ok… so the CTIA is against a common standard? Or thinks it's unnecessary?
"We can achieve our 5G ambitions with a secure global supply chain that reflects national security concerns. We caution against a patchwork approach of different rules for different regions which would result in less competition in supply chains."
Hang on, isn't that what the GSMA is arguing for? A global, common approach to 5G networks? Well, no. From the GSMA announcement: "As European policy makers consider ways to further secure network infrastructure, we urge them not to lose focus on all relevant policy objectives – security, competition, innovation and consumer impact."
So far, so good. But then: "This requires a fact-based and risk-based approach, including recognition that Europe’s starting points and approaches to date, have been different than some other parts of the world. Specifically actions that disrupt the equipment supply for the various segments of the network (access, transport and core), will increase costs to European operators, businesses and citizens; delay 5G deployment by years across Europe and potentially also jeopardise the functioning of existing 4G networks upon which 5G is intended to be built."
What does that mean, you ask? Well you can pair it with the CTIA's "global supply chain that reflects national security concerns" to get the answer.
National security concerns? Yep, that's code for China. And Huawei. And a suspiciously evidence-free insistence on the part of the US government and mobile industry that all those Chinese products that work just as well, are built to the same specs, but are much, much cheaper are a security threat.
The US government has embarked on a very public effort to ban Chinese companies like Huawei from the global 5G network rollout entirely, claiming that the Middle-Kingdom-sourced equipment is effectively a backdoor into networks for the Chinese government.
But having undertaken its own investigations, Germany is not in any way convinced that this fear-mongering is anything but that: fear-mongering. With a trillion-dollar price tag.
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Germany is planning to move ahead, albeit cautiously, and allow the use of Huawei equipment, and a report from the UK's security services due in July is expected to recommend the same. This GSMA announcement of a common testing system is the European mobile industry's way of saying that it not only doesn't buy American spy claims, but also won’t be buying solely American equipment. And so, of course, the CTIA feels obliged to argue otherwise.
It's not entirely clear why the US feels that these sort of bully-boy tactics are going to work in its favor. Europe is a big-enough market by itself not to have to go along with whatever the US decides. And if that wasn't already clear enough, there is of course the very name of the organizations pushing for common testing: GSM Association.
It wasn't that long ago that America decided not to embrace the global GSM standard and opted to go for CDMA instead. As a result, the US lost its ability to dominate a massive global market in mobile communications.
And so it has decided to learn from that experience by, er, doing the exact same thing. It's our way or the highway, the US government and mobile industry is roaring. That's fine, says the UK, we'll take the motorway. And we prefer the autobahn, says Germany. ®