The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser to Gallos Technologies
Now that 5G, or fifth-generation mobile telephony, is being rolled out across the world, the race for 6G is on. This is not only a contest for technology, but also for geopolitical influence. China has grown in economic and political strength since the creation of 3G and 4G and its flagship telecoms firm Huawei is now intent on creating world-beating 6G technology. This puts the west at a crossroads: will companies and governments be able to set aside their doctrine of market competition in time to work collectively towards an alternative?
The bruising battles of 5G deployment should serve as a cautionary tale. Initially, most western governments leaned towards allowing Huawei to compete for the contracts. But then concerns over the national security implications, led by the US, prompted countries such as the UK, France and Canada to ban or phase out Huawei equipment from their 5G infrastructure. The US has multiple sanctions on Huawei technology and just last week banned the purchase of certain components made by Huawei and the smaller Chinese firm ZTE. China, meanwhile, has retaliated by edging Sweden’s Ericsson out of the country — Huawei and ZTE now completely dominate the domestic market.
It seems that the fight over 5G was a precursor to the looming 6G battle. Today, Huawei has far better technological capabilities than it did when 5G was under development. The Chinese telecoms company has boasted that its 6G will “continue the transformation from connected people and things to connected intelligence”.
Nokia, Samsung and Ericsson — long considered the world’s most advanced mobile-infrastructure innovator — are also key players in the race. Last week, Ericsson launched a 6G research initiative in the UK, which will bring together academics and industry partners to build resilience and security into the world’s future digital infrastructure.
But while Huawei deputy chair Eric Xu has called on east and west to “define 6G together”, it is unlikely that his company’s vision will converge with that of Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung and smaller western companies. Instead, we face two versions and executions of tomorrow’s mobile telephony. That matters, because despite Huawei’s 5G setbacks in western countries, the company is a behemoth that dominates countless developing markets, not to mention the Chinese one. And because today’s revenues underwrite tomorrow’s innovation, Huawei has a mighty war chest — and the intellectual heft of China’s research institutes at its disposal. In comparison, the research by Ericsson and its western competitors is bound to be more limited and fragmented by market rivalry.
The end of the golden era in western-Chinese relations has prompted action, such as Apple and Samsung moving part of their production from China to friendlier countries like Vietnam. Two years ago, the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson floated the idea of a “D10” group of democratic nations (G7 countries plus India, Australia and South Korea) to tackle crucial challenges like 5G infrastructure, but the proposal has gone quiet. Two new blocs are forming, though unlike the cold war, when adversaries squared off over territory, the competition now is economic. The emerging western bloc has an opportunity to gain the upper hand by collectively building a top-notch and safe 6G model. There would be diplomatic benefits as well as technological ones.
“This is also an obvious area for confidence-building between the UK and EU, which is something we really need,” noted Stewart McDonald, a member of the UK parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
If western countries don’t collaborate, however, they face a very real risk of having to accept Huawei’s 6G. That would make the painful battle over 5G infrastructure look like a minor scuffle.