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Trump stumbles as smartphone-obsessed America falls far behind in the race to roll out 5G networks

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Dana Kennedy
Dana Kennedy

“Should I get a Huawei phone?”

That’s what friends in New York City, where ads heralding 5G are popping up all over, have asked me more than once. Apple, biding its time, has yet to release an iPhone with 5G.

If the customers are tech heads with money to burn for a new toy, you could say yes. Better to say no.

But here’s the real answer: It’s not about the phone.

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It’s more about how a social media and smartphone-obsessed America may be dropping the ball when it comes to controlling the nascent 5G revolution. China’s Huawei wants to dominate 5G on a global scale.

It doesn’t help that we have a president more interested in making deals than in protecting U.S. security or encouraging innovation … and who doesn’t understand the basics of 5G.

As part of his ongoing trade war with China, Trump has made Huawei into the Voldemort of telecoms.

The average person knows about Huawei because, as part of his ongoing trade war with China, Trump has made it into the Voldemort of telecoms. He’s blacklisting the company ostensibly because it could spy on us and has lobbied U.S. allies not to use its equipment when building their next-generation 5G wireless networks.

Huawei’s also a threat to what Trump called a “race we must win” and a “race we will win” in an awkward April speech about the U.S. rollout of 5G that sounded as if he were reading an old script from “The Jetsons.”

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U.S. Way Behind on 5G

America’s actual chances of winning that race? Said FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, quoting a recent U.S military report on 5G:  “The country that owns 5G will own innovations and set the standards for the rest of the world and that country is currently not likely to be the United States.”

Huawei, established in 1987 when all Chinese telecommunication technology had been imported from abroad, is considered a threat to national security because of close ties to the Chinese government. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Huawei’s increasing global dominance was subsidized by $75 billion in state support.

Huawei has a hot new flagship phone with 5G capability. Yes, and this after starting to make handsets just five years ago.

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But where the massive Chinese company really beats us, for now, involves the key infrastructure like routers, servers and cell phone towers that will power the Internet of Things and smart factories. 5G has been hyped as the wireless magic that will enable everything from driverless cars to remote surgery.

World’s Largest Equipment Maker

Huawei is the largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in the world and is second only to Samsung in owning the most 5G essential patents. The United States has strong companies like Cisco and Qualcomm (which arguably owns some of the best quality 5G patents) but we are behind when it comes to the most critical components of 5G technology.

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We lack suppliers for the main switching networks for 5G, so European companies like Nokia and Ericsson will have to build them.

“The U.S. has a big hole when it comes to American-made infrastructure for 5G and it puts us at a real disadvantage,” Bob O’Donnell, chief analyst at TECHnalysis Research, told DCReport.

“But I don’t think Trump even understands it. Remember when he went to that Apple factory in Texas this fall and said Apple is going to make the 5G network happen. Hello dude! Apple makes phones that connect to the network. They’ve got nothing to do with making the network!”

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Google Shut Out

You can still shell out for the cool new Huawei Mate 30 Pro—one reviewer called it “the incredible phone you won’t buy.” But because the Trump administration has forced U.S. companies like Google to cut off Huawei, it won’t have the pre-installed Google apps like YouTube and Chrome.

Huawei’s taken a big hit here and around the world as a result of the sanctions and issued a lengthy rebuttal to claims that it’s both dangerous spyware and cheap.

The company, however, is resilient. The company’s top executive in India, Charles Peng, recently announced a rollout next year of replacements for Google’s app suite (GMS) with its own HMS, or Huawei Media Services. On Dec. 30, the Indian government allowed Huawei to participate in trials for 5G networks, Reuters reported.

Even though 5G will show up as simply faster wireless networks for the next two years, watching foreign powers vault past America is a bitter pill for a country that pretty much invented modern telecommunications.

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Some perspective: Samuel Morse’s first telegraph line was installed in 1844 with the first transcontinental telegraph line laid in 1861. China didn’t get a telegraph line until 1877 and it was only six miles long.

Bell Telephone was founded in 1877 and by 1910 there were more than 6 million telephones in America 

Rapid Growth in China

In contrast, China had only 7,000 phone subscribers in 1910. All were in Beijing and owned only by the very rich who got the technology from the West, according to Eric Harwit, a professor at the University of Hawaii and author of “China’s Telecommunications Revolution.”

When Harwit was an exchange student in Beijing in 1982, “No one had a phone in their house,” he said. Harwit had to go to the Ministry of Communications when he wanted to call his parents back here.

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Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental phone call from the storied American Telephone & Telegraph building in downtown Manhattan (it now houses Nobu restaurant) to San Francisco in 1915.

Bell could never have imagined that more than a century later, the Chinese would—within two decades—leapfrog past landlines and claim the fastest deployment of telecommunications technology in the world.

“If you’d told me even in 1982 that China would have more mobile phone subscribers and Internet users that any other country it would just not compute,” Harwit said. “They were lagging behind for so long. Now it’s the opposite. I’m just not sure banning them is the way for the U.S. to go. We’re a free market. Instead we should start focusing on what we can bring to 5G.”

The question for the moment, then, is not whether to get a 5G phone—but rather, can the U.S. get 5G?

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