Stop arguing about 5G, start thinking about 6G

As telecommunications technology reaches a critical juncture, European leaders should focus their attention on how to build its next generation.

From online learning to digital diplomacy, the Covid19 pandemic has shown the importance of reliable and fast digital communications technology. The fifth generation (5G) of wireless networking technology promises high-speed, always-on connections. Over the past two years, there has been a discussion across Europe over whether the Chinese company Huawei should be allowed to build its 5G infrastructure. While countries such as Poland have banned Huawei from their networks due to fears of espionage, other major economies such as Germany still have not settled the issue. But the discussion around Huawei is narrow and short-sighted—policymakers need to recognize that 6G, not 5G, is the crucial inflection point for digital communications technology.

Mobile networking technology has had a particular historical trajectory. The first generation (1G), introduced in the 1980s, allowed devices to make analog voice calls for the first time. Crucially, 1G set out the basic elements that have remained in all subsequent generations of telecommunications technology, such as cells, frequency reuse, and multiple access. The second generation (2G) used digital signals and allowed people to send SMS and e-mails from their phones. Building on both 1G and 2G, the third generation (3G), implemented in the early 2000s, enabled mobile internet access and ushered in the smartphone revolution. Moreover, 3G set a global standard that network operators, regulators, and manufacturers agreed to: GSM/UMTS. Our current wireless networks are mostly fourth generation (4G); 4G's high coverage and speeds have made mobile devices central to our lives. Thanks to its international standard, LTE, "4G essentially unified the world".

This evolution of different technological generations from 1G to 4G is what political scientist Paul Pierson would call "path dependent". As one generation builds on the next, there are increasing returns of maintaining this arrangement of technologies and standards. Staying on the same technological path has advantages for consumers, who can use their devices in various networks and in different countries. It also has benefits for companies, who profit from what one industry insider calls "easier vendor lock-ins". In Pierson's words, "coordination effects" between actors cause path dependency since common technological standards lead to increased usage and investment.

The recent arrival of 5G is also an outcome of this path dependent development. Despite sensationalist advertisements and political fearmongering that might suggest otherwise, 5G largely builds on existing 4G infrastructure and falls within the same technological path. Like its predecessors, 5G also shares a common standard that is used around the world—independent of whether Huawei, Nokia, or Ericsson build its components. This allows network operators in all countries to invest in the same underlying technology and to profit from coordination effects.

The discussions around Huawei did not change the technological composition of 5G. However, the politization of telecommunications technology, spurred by the trade war between the United States and China, constitutes an exogenous shock that has led to the end of a path that continuously enrolled companies, customers, and countries in digital networks. As voices to nationalize digital communications technology and standards grow louder, we have reached an inflection point—or what Pierson terms a "critical juncture"—in which the future of digital network technology will be decided, and a new path will form.

Specifically, this will play out around 6G, the next generation of mobile networking technology. As one commentator argued earlier this year, "the real danger is what comes after 5G". There is a high risk of the global standard that has characterized previous generations splitting into multiple regional standards. Additionally, with an increasing virtualization of networks, inter-operability between manufacturers could be in peril. As a consequence, many now fear a fragmentation or "balkanization" of digital infrastructure. In fact, countries like Japan have already begun developing independent 6G networks.

What 6G ultimately looks like is still uncertain, but its parameters are being formulated now. The path dependent trajectory of previous generations of telecommunications technology has come to an end. At this critical juncture, European leaders need to demonstrate far-sighted thinking about digital networks, beyond a decision of whether to allow Huawei in. If the European Union is serious about its digital sovereignty, it must find ways to operate in an increasingly fragmented technological landscape. How can virtual networks be regulated? Can the global standard be maintained or is there a need for a European alternative? Europe needs to find answers to these questions soon, as decisions on 6G will create their own future path dependencies.

Matthias Auer is a second year Master’s student at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva. His expertise is in the international and domestic politics of digital technologies. He holds Bachelor degrees from the University College Freiburg and the University College Maastricht and has interned at research institutions in Berlin and The Hague.

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