Political Economy

US is chasing China’s tail on 5G

May 16, 2021

David P. Goldman

Washington Fellow

Super-fast data speed is not the point. The future is in robots talking to each other and response is the key.

Chinese manufacturers have installed about 5,000 private 5G networks and will add tens of thousands more this year as 5G broadband enables Fourth Industrial Revolution applications, according to mainland industry leaders.

China already has 70% of the world’s installed 5G base stations and 80% of the world’s 5G smartphone users.

The global chip shortage and US sanctions against Chinese telecom equipment firms such as Huawei and ZTE have slowed China’s 5G buildout to some extent but 5G infrastructure already covers all of China’s major cities. 

China will add between 500,000 to 800,000 new 5G base stations to the 792,000 in place at the end of February, according to industry sources. 5G’s impact on productivity as well as profitability will come from downstream applications, not the network buildout as such. 

“It doesn’t make any sense for the West to pour billions of dollars into alternatives to China’s 5G technology,” one Chinese executive told Asia Times.

“It’s too little too late, and it focuses on the wrong areas. Trying to invent an alternative ecosystem isn’t going to work. I would have expected the United States to say, ‘Let’s transform industry, let’s be more competitive.’

“The US is great at analytics with firms like Google, Microsoft and Amazon. That’s what should have been done.”

5G, as I argued in my 2020 book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World, is the railroad of the 21st century – a carrier technology whose importance lies in the other technologies it makes possible.

Every important railroad company founded in the 19th century went bankrupt, and the industry was unprofitable until E H Harriman reorganized the Union Pacific at the end of the century, but it launched America’s industrial and agricultural revolutions.

The speed of further 5G buildout will depend in part on China’s ability to manufacture chips with transistor gateways of 28 nanometers or less, according to a semiconductor industrial executive. Most observers believe that China has mastered 28 nanometer process node production and will be able to fabricate most of its own requirements by the end of 2021.

Media attention has focused on the newest chips with gateways of 7 nanometers or less, which power high-end smartphones, crypto mining workstations and other high-powered devices. But the workhorse of semiconductor applications is the previous generation of chips in the 14 to 28 nanometer range, which will provide the bulk of chip demand during the next five years, especially for wireless connectivity.

In its drive for semiconductor self-sufficiency, China has concentrated on fabrication capacity and chip-making equipment in the 28-nanometer range. Shanghai Microelectronic Equipment will deliver the first Chinese-made lithography scanner using the Deep Ultra-Violet (DUV) process in late 2021.

Washington persuaded the Dutch government to stop the Netherlands firm ASML from selling China the Extreme Ultra-Violet scanners required for 7 nanometer and smaller chip production. Only Taiwan and South Korea have the ability to make the narrower gateway chips.

But China has been an aggressive buyer of Dutch DUV machines, and appears ready to deploy its own.

Although US carriers offer what they call 5G service, the American version provides download speeds barely above the older-generation 4G LTE broadband, at around 60 mbits/second. The average speed in China is five times higher, at over 300 mbits/second.

Private networks support industrial robotics as well as “smart” logistics, including automation of major ports. A 5G network supports the automation of the Shanghai Port, which handles 44 million containers per year, compared to 8 million containers at America’s largest facility in Long Beach, California, where more than twenty ships are waiting offshore to unload.

China opened its first 5G-enabled fully-automated port a year ago in Xiamen, with automated cranes stacking containers on driverless trucks. Shanghai’s Yangshan port began fully automated, 24-hour operations in August 2020.

In late 2020, Shandong Energy Group began operations at an automated coal mine controlled by a 5G network. 

Automated warehouses, autonomous vehicles and drones promise to transform e-commerce, with firms like Alibaba and JD Logistics offering same or next-day delivery from computer-controlled storage facilities where packages are sorted and sent by drones or autonomous vehicles.

JD Logistics’ $3.2 billion IPO launched in Hong Kong this week, promising a new level of productivity in delivery. JD still depends on 200,000 delivery personnel but its warehouse management makes Amazon look primitive.

By contrast, Western companies are still evaluating whether they should install private 5G networks to support factory automation, according to a 2020 report by the Capgemini Research Institute. Some German companies, including Audi and BASF, are testing private networks.

In May 2021, Ericsson installed a private network for Airbus, Europe’s premier manufacturer of civilian aircraft, but the network will run on 4G until the 5G network is launched next year. In Silicon Valley, Hitachi and Ericsson have built a 5G research network.

With few exceptions, Western investment in enterprise 5G networks is tentative and experimental, while China’s factories, mines and ports have put 5G into full operation.

The critical difference between 5G and older broadband isn’t speed, but rather carrying capacity and latency (speed of response). Industrial operations require near-instant response time among machines controlled by the network, and 5G, which reduces response time by a factor of ten, opens up possibilities for industrial automation that formerly were unimaginable. 

In 2019, I interviewed Huawei Chief Technology Officer Paul Scanlan for my book on China. He told me: that the combination of machine learning and 5G will allow robots to talk to each other and work out production processes without the help of human engineers.

“’Let’s take robotics today,” he told me. “5G changes everything. Typically, 5G is spoken about in terms of download speed, but that’s not the most important advantage.

“For industrial processes, autonomous vehicles and other applications, the latency – the time it takes for one device to acquire and respond to a signal from another device – is more important. On a factory floor today, Robot A does its instruction, passes the bit to Robot B, and it’s the same thing.

“Now, if we put very low latency inside each of the robots – and they can be robots from different manufacturers – and put them in a room, and give them the rules, like Go or like chess, to enable them to connect in real-time – milliseconds, lightning fast – then put a bit of plastic in view, and say, I want you to make a plastic cup, the robots will organize themselves much better than we would have thought.

“You’re going to push the plastic flat, you’re going to extrude it this way, you’re going to finish it that way. That’s the way we think, and that might be the first attempt of the robots.

“Then afterwards we can talk about cutting down the amount of wastage, or the time it takes to make these things, or other key performance indicators, and they will start to do things differently.

“What we saw when we did this is collaboration between robots from different manufacturers — ABB, Kawasaki, and others. Connectivity allows you to move from very basic stuff to very sophisticated stuff.”

Originally published by Asia Times.