The rollout of speedy new cellular networks is a geopolitical turning point, but almost nobody yet recognizes this.
The rollout of fifth-generation cellular networks around the world will likely be a defining geopolitical dilemma of 2020. But American and European consumers could easily mistake 5G for just another marketing ploy for early adopters—to the detriment of democracies worldwide.
When the number in the corner of our smartphone screens changed from 3G to 4G, few of us even noticed. Ditto when LTE, another step in the evolution of cellular networks, appeared as an alternative to 4G. Still, for the better part of the past two years, wireless carriers on both sides of the Atlantic have been hyping 5G—which, they promise, will offer data speeds of up to 100 times faster than current connections. Tech futurists say fifth-generation networks will support a plethora of internet-connected sensors, vehicles, appliances, and other devices that will perform functions yet unimagined.
In Europe, the walls of nearly every major airport from Stockholm and Brussels to Lisbon and Madrid have been plastered with 5G-related ads. In the United States, network providers such as AT&T have even rolled out what they’re calling “5GE” networks—a pre-5G deployment that capitalizes on the vaguely futuristic branding of fifth-generation networks even before all the requisite new radios and chipsets have been installed. Still, 7 of 10 Americans tell PricewaterhouseCoopers they’ll wait patiently to receive a 5G device until they are eligible for an upgrade from their current provider.
Amid this much public indifference, 5G may seem like an unlikely battleground between China and the West. Yet the transition to 5G may mark the point, after decades of Chinese integration into a globalized economy, when Beijing’s interests diverge irreconcilably from those of the United States, the European Union, and their democratic peers. Because of a failure of imagination, Western powers risk capitulating in what has become a critical geopolitical arena. Simply put, neither the American nor the European public seems to view the networks that supply Snapchat clips and Uber cars as anything close to a security threat..