#religion | 5G is now a religion

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How are you today?


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Oh, but before that, we have a fun edition today.


Today, I thought I’d write about something we’ve all heard about—5G technology.

For a long time, I was convinced I couldn’t write anything interesting about a telecom standard like 5G. However, after keeping an eye on recent developments, I’ve come to the realisation that not only is 5G really interesting, but it’s also the first technology that’s successfully crossed a barrier and become something that few technologies become.


5G technology is, in essence, now a religion.


The ramifications of this development are fairly consequential. The last time something similar happened was when the steam engine or electricity was invented. And, in my estimate, 5G surpasses even that.


I’ll explain.

Five ways how 5G is now a religion

Image credit : Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Did you watch the Apple event a few days back?


It’s okay if you didn’t. There wasn’t much particularly interesting. Apple announced another iPhone—which they obviously said was the “best one till date”. It obviously cost as much as a plot of land in a small town in India. And it’s obviously something I felt like I needed to buy immediately, even though I have a perfectly functional iPhone.


Basically—a typical Apple event.


But with one key difference.


Apple. Could. Not. stop. Talking. About. 5G.


They used it as the main descriptor for their brand new iPhone.

They made sure it showed up in their product videos, as a carrier network.

They seemingly built a giant memorial to 5G on the campus behind their headquarters.

And printed it on billboard-scale font sizes on the walls of their auditorium, which looks like a futuristic, alien hospital…

Then they thought, wait a minute…


Apple executive : “THIS ISN’T BIG ENOUGH!”

Event Manager : “Sir, but that’s the maximum font size our printer allows-”


Event Manager : “But sir you are launching an iPhone. Why-”

Apple executive : “JUST DO IT”

Event Manager : “Okay fine sir -”


Event Manager : “…bigger, sir. Got it.”

I’m not the only one to notice this. There are supercuts and memes online about how many times Apple called attention to its 5G technology. It’s all very hilarious.


But once I read up a bit, I was astonished by what Apple had really done.


Because 5G is a pretty strange technology.


And like I said, it’s like a religion.

The scriptures are being fought over quite vigorously


All major religions have some version of a holy text and scripture. These texts are hardly unchanged over time. For many reasons, some ideological, but mostly for good old power plays, there are many versions of these texts. At some point, something is removed. At another point in history, something else is added.


Well, like most religions, the writing of the scriptures of 5G is…quite a process.


The technical specifications for 5G are created by an organisation called the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). The 3GPP is a loose coalition of organisations from several countries, most prominently the US, China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Europe. The group has several working groups and committees, and together, they draft what 5G can do, what it can’t do, and how it will do it.


I can’t stress how important this process is.


The reason why it’s important is because the definition of the specifications and standards of 5G has a direct bearing on who can get a head-start and actually implement 5G. It also has an impact on patents. A company which has a patent on a technology that ends up becoming a core requirement of 5G may suddenly find itself very valuable. Think of what 3GPP is doing as framing the constitution of 5G.


And it’s leading to a tussle. For one major reason.

Many companies have contributed to the drafting of 5G, but the standard reflects a shift from US and European tech to Chinese compared with 4G, the previous standard. An analysis of contributions to 3GPP specifications, published in August 2019 by IHS Markit, found that Chinese firms contributed approximately 59 percent of the standards, with Huawei accounting for most of those. The standards for 4G were led by European and American firms.


“The US wrote 4G,” says Charles Clancy, vice president for intelligence programs at MITRE, a nonprofit that manages US research projects. “In the meantime, through government subsidies and cybertheft of competitors’ intellectual property, Huawei became the global leader while nobody was watching,” says Clancy, who has studied 5G security. “They slowly took control of the standards groups, and China wrote 5G.”

5G Was Going to Unite the World—Instead It’s Tearing Us Apart, Wired

The arguments at this level are fairly consequential.


As an example, let me tell you what India has been doing at the 3GPP, and how it made its first contribution to the definition of these standards.


So, one of the things that the 5G standard determines is the acceptable range of a base station. Initially, this was set to 1.7 km at the 3GPP. From a telecom equipment manufacturers’ standpoint, lower range means telecom operators need to install more base stations for better coverage. More base stations is good for them.


India fought this hard, and increased this to 12 km — albeit as an optional standard. India’s argument was basically borne from a practical consideration of costs. There was no way India’s telcos would make enormous investments and install fibre to make this work. India needed base stations over a larger area. Obviously, a lot of international telecom companies weren’t happy. Strangely, even Indian telecom operators were unhappy.


You really should read The Ken’s coverage about this tussle here and here.

Two major branches develop


This is the part about 5G that almost everyone knows about.


A couple of years back, thanks to the combined might of several countries, led by the United States, the Chinese company Huawei was blocklisted in countries across the world. The reasoning for the ban ranged from cyberespionage, stealing technology, and a close proximity to the government of China. At the United States request, the Canadian government even arrested Huawei’s CFO—who also happened to be the daughter of the company’s founder, in December 2018.


Of course, by this time, it was quite obvious to all that Huawei was heavily involved in setting the 5G standards.


The witch hunt against Huawei was on.


Since then, the world has broken into two camps—the ones who believe in Huawei, and the ones who don’t.


Countries like the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India are aligning themselves against Huawei. Meanwhile, others like China, Russia, Argentina, Brazil, and Thailand are pro-Huawei.


And the best part is nobody really knows if the accusations against Huawei are real or imagined.


Tell me how this doesn’t sound like a religion.


Purity tests begin


There’s a fun story about what AT&T, one of the United States’ biggest telecom companies, did last year. They made an announcement that they now offered 5G.

Here’s why AT&T did it. They claimed they possessed and offered 5G but as a marketing strategy. In fact, what AT&T was doing was passing off 4G technology as an ‘early version of 5G’.


Well, the National Advertising Review board was not amused.

A panel of the National Advertising Review Board (NARB) has recommended that AT&T Services, Inc. discontinue its “5G Evolution” and “5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G” claims. The advertising at issue had been challenged by T-Mobile USA, Inc. before the National Advertising Division (NAD). Following NAD’s decision, AT&T appealed NAD’s recommendation that these two claims be discontinued.


NARB is the appellate unit of the advertising industry’s system of self-regulation and NAD is the investigative unit. Both NARB and NAD are divisions of BBB National Programs.


Agreeing with NAD’s findings and recommendations, the NARB panel determined that both claims will mislead reasonable consumers into believing that AT&T is offering a 5G network and recommended that the claims be discontinued. At NAD and on appeal, it was not disputed that the AT&T network is not a 5G network. The NARB Panel agreed with NAD’s analysis and concluded that the term “Evolution” is not likely to alert consumers to the fact that the service is not 5G. The Panel noted that the current prevalent technology in wireless is 4G LTE, and LTE stands for “evolution.” Thus, consumers may well interpret “Evolution” in the challenged claims as signifying that AT&T’s technology has already evolved into 5G.

After Appeal, NARB Recommends AT&T Discontinue “5G Evolution” and “5G Evolution, The First Step to 5G” Claims

But there was one thing that AT&T refused to do. If you had an AT&T connection, you’d see 5GE on the top-right corner…when all you really had was a 4G network.

AT&T agreed to take down the ads, but refused to remove this.


What they had was a form of 5G, they insisted.


The next year, Verizon, the other major telecom provider followed suit. Once again, regulators got involved.

Verizon has been told to stop making misleading claims about the speed and coverage of its 5G network in its ads, the National Advertising Division (NAD) has announced. The organization, which runs the ad industry’s self-regulatory system and is part of BBB National Programs, took issue with two TV ads, in particular, which it said suggest that Verizon’s 5G service is widely available across the country and that customers can expect speeds as fast as “2 gigs.” Verizon said it will comply with the NAD’s recommendations, which are to stop making these claims.

Verizon told to stop making misleading 5G claims by ads watchdog, The Verge

Everyone wants to claim an affiliation to 5G, even though nobody really has it.


Smaller sects develop


To understand this, we’ll need to go a little deeper to understand how 5G works.


Essentially, the way 5G is conceived, it can be used across a range of spectrums. This means that you can use it on the low-end, middle band or on the high-end. The tradeoffs are straightforward. The highest end of the spectrum offers the highest speeds, but with the smallest range. So that means more base stations. Lower end means high range, but also low speeds.


This is both 5G’s biggest curse and blessing.


For starters, this means that there are many different interpretations of what 5G actually means, and it’s not based on speed. In fact, many nations have to make an active choice on which end of the spectrum they want to develop their technology, and the answer isn’t that straightforward.


Take the US for example.

For 5G, however, the United States has focused on making high-band spectrum the core of its early 5G approach. These airwaves, known as “millimeter wave,” are way, way up there—above 24 GHz. They have never been used in cellular networks before, and for good reason—they don’t send signals very far and are easily blocked by walls. That means they are very expensive to build out. On the flip side, these airwaves offer a lot more capacity, which translates into ultrafast speeds.


The United States is alone in this mission to make millimeter wave the core of its domestic 5G networks. The rest of the world is taking a different approach. Other nations vying for wireless leadership are not putting high-band airwaves front and center now. Instead, they are focusing on building 5G networks with mid-band spectrum, because it will support faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous 5G deployment.

Choosing the Wrong Lane in the Race to 5G, Wired

This means the 5G rollout in the US is going to be focused on dense urban areas and be very, very expensive. Many believe that this could be a costly mistake.


Other countries like China are focused on other parts of the spectrum, but are facing other problems.


This is also why Apple’s 5G phone is quite an accomplishment. It has managed to pack in a range of antennas that can work across all these spectrums depending on the country you are in.


In fact, some believe that Apple will be responsible for a more standard adoption of 5G standards across the world. I wouldn’t go that far, but we’ll see what happens next.

The crazies take over



Some 50 fires targeting cell towers and other equipment have been reported in Britain this month; some 16 have been torched in the Netherlands, with attacks also reported in Ireland, Cyprus, and Belgium


The CCTV footage from a Dutch business park shows a man in a black cap pouring the contents of a white container at the base of a cellular radio tower. Flames burst out as the man jogs back to his Toyota to flee into the evening.


It’s a scene that’s been repeated dozens of times in recent weeks in Europe, where officials are pushing back against conspiracy theories linking new 5G mobile networks and the coronavirus pandemic are fueling arson attacks on cell towers.

 Conspiracy theorists burn 5G towers claiming link to coronavirus, The Hindu

I have nothing else to add.


Finally, nobody is really sure about the purpose of it all


This is the most important part.


If you ask someone, what does 5G really accomplish?


The answer is usually, well, faster speeds on your mobile device.


Yes, but for what?


Think about it. You already stream videos, send messages, listen to music, and play games on your device—all on 4G. What exactly does 5G get you? What can’t you do on your device that requires you to have 5G?


There are many applications cited. Internet of Things. Virtual Reality. Gaming.


Well, sure, but how many people need any of this right now?


In fact, all current applications of 5G seem to be making progress really slowly, or in some cases, have even reversed. Take Korea, for example, which led in 5G deployment, and recently witnessed users who tried 5G and then went back to 4G. Or China, who is figuring out that base stations are expensive to produce and maintain, with enormous power requirements.


So much so, that Chinese companies are actively shutting down 5G at certain times during the day to save on power.

Mounted on rooftops, utility poles and streetlights throughout China since last year are hundreds of thousands of high-tech wireless towers for 5G, a powerful sign of the country’s ambition to lead in new technology. Yet many of them are operational for only half the day.


China Unicom, one of three telecommunication operators, announced in August that its Luoyang branch in Henan province would automatically switch its 5G transmitter stations to sleep mode from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. because there were few people using them. The other two carriers quickly followed suit and since then have rolled out the same policies in other cities across the country.


“Shutting down base stations is not a manual shutdown, but an automatic adjustment made at a certain time,” Wang Xiaochu, chairman of China Unicom, said at the company’s midyear earnings conference.

Chinese 5G Not Living Up to Its Hype, VOA

I’ll end with this unlikely quote that I found in the earlier story, made by the most unlikely person in this business.

In fact, human societies do not have an urgent need for 5G. What people need now is broadband, and the main content of 5G is not broadband.

Ren Zhengfei, Founder and CEO, Huawei


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Take care.


Praveen Gopal Krishnan


The Nutgraf is a paid weekly emailer that explains fundamental shifts in business, technology and finance that happened over the last seven days in India. In a way you’ll never forget.


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