In a dining room reserved for only ten people for a banquet at a fancy hotel in the middle of Shenzhen, two executives of ZTE Corporation, a Chinese telecom multinational, are seen sitting around a shiny dining table–the vice president and managing director for corporate branding— Shu, David Dai and his deputy.
Dai strikes up a discussion about his exploits in Ethiopia and how the Corporation helped the then Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC), now Ethio Telecom, expand modern telecom services and introduce the then cutting-age 3G mobile network technology. He also remembers the small number of Chinese staffers who were on the ground in Ethiopia and contemplates how the Chinese are major players in Ethiopia today in sectors ranging from telecommunications to roads and railway construction. No surprise that the Chinese are almost into every aspects of life in African.
With Ethio Telecom’s service quality and reach at the time of his visit to Ethiopia still fresh in his memory, he takes pride in the fact that now telecom services in Ethiopia is employing 4G network – a technology that is in par with the first world.
He then ventures into how well ZTE is doing both in terms of research and service provision in the areas of 5G, a frontier telecom technology and subject of debate and hope among many experts, politicians and giant tech companies all over the world.
The fifth-generation network a.k.a 5G is a mobile internet connectivity technology promising much faster data download and upload speed, wider coverage and more stable connectivity. It is said to provide a download speed which is 10 to 20 percent greater than the currently used mobile networks. The need for such capability is linked with the emergence of the revolutionary internet of things and wide scope of technological innovation captured in what is been called the fourth industrial revolution.
ZTE is one of the global giants in the race to pioneer the deployment of this novel project even to the advanced economies of the world. Nevertheless, the technology is at its infant stage even in the West where there are huge investments in research and development (R&D). But, ZTE and its Chinese counterparts claim that they are on the way to provide technologies and services related to 5G to global carriers especially in developing countries.
At the Headquarters of ZTE in Shenzhen, a new city of industrial innovations and technological research in the Guangdong province of South Western China, there is a display of technological innovations that the Corporation carried out throughout its existence. Only 15 years old, Shenzhen, which is roughly three and half times larger than Hong Kong, is the heart of Chinese tech innovation; it is an experimental city embodying the essence of an open and reformed China. Now, one of the few world-class cities in China, Shenzhen has shouldered the responsibility of pulling its residences and residences of other towns in the vicinity out of poverty.
In this open ‘museum’ are displayed equipment that can be used to deploy 5G technologies (like cloud servers and satellite receivers) and some experimental videos (like the one depicting the concept of a self-driven car in action). The museum also shows mobile phones, servers and other equipment that the Corporation manufactures and sale to its customers. Obviously, what catches the eye would be the videos that display the capabilities of a 5G technology and what this network advancement is expected to bring with it.
“The deployment of 5G does not mean it would wipe out the existing 3G and 4G technologies but it will be complementary. It will improve the capabilities of carriers in terms of wider area coverage and better quality,” explains the museum curator, adding that; “this will be much needed in technologies like self-driving cars which could have fatal consequences if connectivity is interrupted even for seconds.”
She also explains that, 5G will be a much more needed technology in areas of congestion such as sports arenas where many people crave for connectivity at the same time. In such circumstances, 5G will give sliced networks for specific areas where users can get better services out of the existing coverage.
Explaining this further, a cellphone technology is based on what is called hexagonal ‘cells’ which are arranged adjacently and each cell covering an area to which it provides connections from network towers. A movement from one cell to another sometimes creates connectivity cuts. And when a connection in one cell is congested it gets busy and people get less quality services. But, with 5G, according to the explanation by the curator, congestion in one cell will not create lesser quality services since every user gets a slice of the existing and better-quality cell service under 5G. This is it!
But all is not rosy with 5G as it seems; beginning from its research phase to its trial deployment, the technology and its possible application has been subjected to vast debates. Especially the nature of 5G, in that it is based on identity provision (digital nativity of the technology) and trust of the service provider, has triggered wide range of arguments among scholars.
And unlike the previous times, where the Chinese companies were focused on manufacturing of technologies already developed by others, this time around they are active players. In regards to 5G, the Chinese are involved in the research, development and deployment of the technology from inception to implementation.
But, the more the Chinese are into the technology, the more the debate rages. This is mostly because of the Chinese track record with regards to monitoring and surveillance; the West and its advocates have had reservations on this track record for many years.
Nonetheless, the Chinese are in this technological race to win it; since it is their only way to show that they can actually innovate despite the long standing arguments in counterfeiting and intellectual property rights. Even, President Xi Jinping has pledged to work hard in ensuring that intellectual property rights is respected and that they have to go a long way to bring about the needed achievements.
The development of the internet and 4G were pioneered by the US; and currently, both European and Asian countries are on a race to win the first place in this new game in town.
Now, 5G is a national priority in the Chinese ‘China 2025’ plan. Some reports indicate that, China is expected to invest more than USD 400 billion on 5G infrastructure for a decade starting 2020.
And China is in the list of countries that are expected to deploy 5G ahead of any other nation on the planet. South Korea, the USA and Japan are the rest and many have already started piloting as well as deployment of the network. There are also some that say Europe is falling back on 5G.
Nonetheless, this looks like a story for developed nations rather than developing ones. But Dai says it is inevitable that 5G will come to developing nations – he predicts in five to ten years 5G will safely enter Africa.
However, the question among some experts regarding technological adaptation of developing nations still remains; they question if developing nations are capable of venturing into research and development of the technologies rather than being passive observers and destination market for developers. This mainly pertains to the issue of financing R&D.
For instance, ZTE only has more than 30,000 R&D staffers in different sites, both in China and abroad. Which country in Africa can have half of this workforce on such projects? Many say this is unimaginable. But, as is recommended for other sectors, Africans can join hands to venture into R&D of future technologies.
Even though 5G brings hope and excitement with it mostly because of its user experience enhancement, there are concerns and reservations surrounding it, as is the case with many technological advancements.
One of the concerns is security. With the growing concern in the area of internet security literacy and the expansion of the internet of things (IoT), network and security features are going to be affected as device defense capacities become increasingly limited. This is a loophole for hacker; household devices could be used for surveillance and other unwanted purposes.
The other is the surveillance issue. A 2018 report by Freedom House points our that, “a cohort of countries is moving toward digital authoritarianism by embracing the Chinese model of extensive censorship and automated surveillance systems.”
And because of this, many countries, especially Europeans, have banned the use of Chinese telecom infrastructures for deployment of 5G on basis of national security concerns.
And with the capacity 5G avails both to governments and tech giants, there is also a growing fear that there might be a much heavier controlling hand over users.
But Dai of ZTE begs to defer saying that, concerns of government surveillance with 5G could be largely misplaced so long as they are using Google. Their information is out there already and whatever they have been googling has been recorded.
The question, however, is whether corporations like Google and Facebook will be much stronger with the added capabilities offered by this new infrastructure.
Despite the fear that the government will have stronger surveillance grip, the technological literacy of lawmakers is yet very limited to monitor and control the activities of tech giants. Some have even reported that US Congressmen and women even failed to show a clear understanding of how the internet works during a recent congressional hearing of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in relation to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
The US lawmakers were heard asking unrelated questions and using totally wrong information to question the CEO. This indicates that there is a very limited knowledge about the internet, even regarding the ‘simplest’ service over the internet.
Hence, there is a moral obligation from such tech giants to help the lawmakers protect the privacy of the public. Their help might extend from providing technical support to engaging the lawmakers into all of their activities.