Loosening China’s Grip on Telecommunications

Credit: Heather Wilde via Unsplash.
Credit: Heather Wilde via Unsplash.

The US and Europe need to unite to build next generation 6G mobile networks. Otherwise, China will win.

Imagine mobile networks that stream a hologram of yourself to your doctor with a real-time reading of your heartbeat – or playing online 3D games in the metaverse through radio waves that detect both your motions and emotions.  

Or consider a connected car linked up to satellites and road sensors that locates a soon-to-be-freed parking space. Or a mobile network that detects when a driver has lost consciousness, allowing the dispatch of an ambulance. 

Just when we learned that 5G mobile phones will transform everything around us, these thought-provoking hypotheticals are what telecom and cloud engineers are building for next generation 6G networks. It’s the next-next big thing that will become a global reality within six to ten years.  

With so many possibilities (and sensitive data) at stake, global powers are already vying for technological leadership, sparking a counterproductive commercial rivalry between Europe and the US.   

On the European side, Brussels has unleashed a series of legislative and administrative actions designed to curb the influence of US-based cloud services and platforms such as Google and Amazon, hoping to cultivate local alternatives through mythically titled projects like “Gaia-X”. On the American side, successive administrations have attacked the global success of Huawei and subsidized US companies to compete against the Chinese. At least $750 million in federal funds are earmarked to subsidy the creation of US-designed kits using a technology called “Open RAN” – an alternative way of building 5G radio antennas with cloud computing, surplus PC parts, and Chinese subcontractors. 

Unsurprisingly, neither the European nor American strategy has proven successful. Europe lacks the business environment to foster innovative services that could challenge Silicon Valley. But the US-sponsored Open RAN telephone systems have missed the proverbial 5G boat – without products ready for the market when all major 5G contracts are already signed.  

The next iteration of technologies will further exacerbate politics and lobbying. A cyber-physical continuum of holograms and human-grade sensory feedback will enhance connective experiences – but also raise privacy and security concerns.  

These new 6G technologies will extinguish any distinctions between the cloud, Wi-Fi, or mobile.6G” will complete the ongoing convergence between the cloud, network infrastructure, and telecoms services. Put simply, Google, Huawei, and T-Mobile will deliver the same product in direct competition against each other. 

China is best placed to capitalize on this convergence of cloud, radio access networks, and online services. Its domestic giants Huawei, ZTE, Tencent, and Alibaba supply 90 percent of their own 5G kit and more than 60 percent of their cloud computing market. It benefits from a vibrant ecosystem of innovative apps and social networks, while three state-owned enterprises control all user connections.  

By comparison, the EU and the US are overspecialized in their respective fields to win the 6G race. Europe is home to two Nordic network equipment vendors, Ericsson and Nokia, that still surpass Huawei in terms of innovation. Conversely, AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud account for the majority of hyperscale cloud needs in both North America and Europe. The transatlantic complementarities are conspicuous. 

It may be too late to undo the recent nationalist policies in Brussels and Washington. But In view of these dynamics, promoting joint EU-US research for the next generation – at the nexus of cloud and 6G – appears most conducive to efficient innovation. Such cooperative sentiments were evident at the latest meeting of the transatlantic Trade and Technology Council – a summit of European and U.S. leaders dedicated to their trade frictions.  

It is important that concerns over market concentration are carefully balanced against a productive spirit of cooperation, possibly even encouraging, and accepting transatlantic mergers. At the least, the EU and the U.S. should avoid Chinese-style state intervention and stop targeting each other with protectionist policies.  

Hosuk Lee-Makiyama is director of the ECIPE, a Brussels think tank. Robin Baker is an economist at the London School of Economics.

May 31, 2022