Illustration: AFP

Ahead of the world’s largest gathering of mobile technology players in Barcelona next week, it appears that the US has all but thrown in the towel in its campaign to get allies to block China’s Huawei from building 5G (fifth-generation wireless) networks. President Donald Trump went so far as to tweet on Thursday morning that the US needs to win through competition, “not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies.”

To this point, a cadre of Trump administration allies is pushing for a new strategy to compete with Chinese firms in the deployment of next-generation wireless technology. The only problem is, experts say, the scheme is either a cynical business play or reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the race to build 5G networks.

Outside Trump adviser and former Republican congressman Newt Gingrich made the pitch in an editorial this week, warning that the US needs to roll out a policy of “open market access wireless.”

The US “needs to put it [this model] forward right now, before or during the meeting in Barcelona. If we don’t, this year’s Mobile World Congress risks turning into a victory lap for Huawei and Beijing,” Gingrich argued.

He acknowledged that the UK – a close US intelligence-sharing ally – will likely not ban Huawei gear from 5G networks. His fears contrast Huawei’s confidence ahead of the exhibition next week.

“If you are asking about how big our 5G lead is – you can ask our customers,” Huawei carrier business group president Ryan Ding said this week. “I firmly believe that all our competitors now have usable 5G base stations. However, usable is different from good,” he added.

America’s ‘wireless moonshot’?

The open-access market approach to which Gingrich referred has been pushed for several years now by a small firm called Rivada, which also boasts the support of venture capitalist and Trump supporter Peter Thiel. While Gingrich agrees with Rivada chief executive officer Declan Ganley that the model “will increase return on new investment and accelerate investment in American 5G” and thus represent a “wireless moonshot,” industry experts express skepticism.

“Newt Gingrich is correct in that we need a different model from the Chinese. But that model is not an open-access experimental technology,” Doug Brake, director of spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), told Asia Times.

“What’s going on,” Brake suggested, “is [Rivada] has some technology that may or may not be pretty innovative but hasn’t exactly been proven out.… They have been working to now lobby federal spectrum users in an attempt to essentially become a middleman.

“I think this a pretty narrow advocacy attempt by a particular corporation,” Brake added.

The argument that Rivada’s Ganley makes is in essence that unlocking value by changing the pricing model of broadband spectrum will allow network operators to spend more on equipment, buying more expensive gear from Nokia, Ericsson or Samsung, which they would do for security reasons. According to his theory, this would help push Huawei out of the picture, as he suggested at an event on promoting US leadership in 5G at the Hudson Institute in November.

Free-market strength vs China’s ‘shoddy equipment’

This policy plays to America’s strengths, Ganley argued alongside another conservative advocate of the model, Karl Rove, who previously served as chief of staff to US president George W Bush.

During the same panel event at the Washington-based think tank, Rove argued that China’s strong government involvement in the technology sector was a weakness, and the US would ultimately win the race because private sector competition is a stronger model in this space.

The Chinese “have got a reputation for shoddy equipment, and shoddy deployment, and we can exploit that by having a better product,” Rove said, dismissing widespread recognition among mobile network operators and industry experts that Huawei equipment and service are equal or superior to competitors in many areas.

James Lewis, a technology policy specialist and senior vice-president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Asia Times that, to the contrary, lack of government funding is holding the US back.

“Our biggest problem is the unwillingness of Republicans to pay taxes,” Lewis said. “This means no infrastructure or basic research.  I believe the Reverend Gingrich had a hand in this and it is where the Chinese have a real advantage.”

Others have noted that US firms once at the forefront of making core wireless network equipment already have plenty of private capital to spend, but lack market incentives to invest in the area because it is not lucrative.

Missing the point

In the end, Huawei’s dominance in building infrastructure and core components for 5G deployment is an entirely different issue from spectrum policy, ITIF’s Brake said.

“There are a lot of different components to wireless systems that are often conflated when discussing 5G generally or the economic competition between the US and China. Manufacturing of 5G equipment, especially the radio equipment – the base stations of the network – is not something the US participates in,” Brake noted.

The competition to assemble the physical components through which 5G applications will run “is a very different issue from the spectrum policy,” he added.

According to Lewis of CSIS, the open-access wireless proposal “is either a misunderstanding of the market and the technology or some kind of business play for the spectrum market.”

Nonetheless, there are signs the Trump administration may be considering the policy as part of a broader strategy to become competitive in 5G. The US president signed a memorandum in October directing his top technology adviser to submit a report on priorities “that advance spectrum access and efficiency.” In advance of those recommendations, which are due by this spring, Huawei will be using the exhibition in Barcelona next week to showcase just how big a foothold they already have in the European market.

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