National pride in “leading 5G” is a barrier to 5G development

This week the UK’s treasury chief repeated his Government’s desire to make the UK a world leader in 5G. Similarly, EC Digital Commissioner Guther Oettinger was off again on his desire to position Europe as a 5G leader.

Despite the increasing tendency of governments to talk of a country, or even region, “leading in 5G” it is empty talk.

There are only two potential ways to “lead in 5G”, one is in leading the technology development that goes towards 5G. The second is in being the first country or region to actually have 5G services.

TECHNOLOGY DEVELOPMENT

Let’s take the first one first – can any single country or a region be a “leader” in 5G technology development. How are we going to score this? Patents awarded? Revenues from a 5G patent pool? The first products to market? Where a company’s HQ is based? If Nokia gets the first “5G base station” to market is that a win for Europe, where its HQ is, or for the USA, where its Bell Labs division – a likely source of a tonne of 5G IPR – is based. Or perhaps for Asia – where its Indian developers reside, and where its sponsors lab activity in Japan, Korea and China.

Ditto Huawei. Let’s say Huawei gets lots of patents into 5G’s patent landscape. Is that a win for China, or for the research projects sponsored by Huawei all over the world, including the thousands of research engineers working in Huawei-labelled facilities in Germany, the UK, Italy etc etc

Ericsson? If Ericsson gets its 5G products to market is that a win for Europe – with its large Silicon Valley operations, its deepening relationship with Cisco, its investment in co-research with NTT DoCoMo, China Mobile and Korean operators?

Keeping a national score when it comes to a technology developed globally and standardised globally makes no sense. It’s just flag waving.

When it comes to 5G technology what does it even matter to governments who is a “winner” in 5G? Naturally the argument is that if “Europe wins” in 5G, say, then increased employment – with the benefits that accrue in terms of tax revenues and social capital – will follow. There may be a virtuous feedback loop in terms of increased investment into education and innovation programmes. Yet Europe is adjudged to have “lost” in 4G, where Ericsson and Nokia are two out of the top three suppliers, and have been since its inception. Go figure.

LIVE DEPLOYMENTS

So maybe we mean Europe “lost” in terms of being slow to have actual 4G deployments. OK, let’s take the other measure of “leading” in 5G – being early to have a 5G service deployed in a particular city, country, region and so on. Remember, though, that Sweden was the first country with live, commercial LTE. And what benefit has accrued to “Europe” from that leadership status? Any leadership in 5G is likely to be ephemeral. Deploy some aspect of Phase 1 5G in a limited area – say some higher order MIMO in sub-6GHz spectrum, maybe even with a virtualised core, in some specially-cleared spectrum. Congratulations, you are a leader in 5G. So what? There are no automatic benefits that arise from such a deployment?

Getting 5G deployed “first” will be a question of 1. Available spectrum 2. Available investment capital from operators. The first item governments can do something about, the second, not so much. Especially in Europe where operators are globally listed, answerable to global shareholders. A national government can say what it likes, but Vodafone, Telefonica, Hutchison are not going to be able to go to investors with a business plan based on “let’s be first.” Maybe in a major centralised command economy you could bypass these economic constraints. Say… China?

NATIONALISM: A BARRIER NOT AN ENABLER

Of course governments should be enabling liaison and grants and partnership between academia and commercial R&D. Of course governments should be looking to unleash the economic benefits that greater connectivity, new vertical use cases etc etc can bring. But the idea of leading on a national basis – just for bragging rights – makes very little sense in real terms, and should not be the driving ambition.

In fact, by atomising and duplicating research efforts, by driving wedges between globally coordinated efforts, national flag waving could even be not just a meaningless distraction but also a barrier to getting 5G developed quicker.

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