U.S.-China Schism Pressures Wireless Standards

Author: Ricardo Tavares
Published: 2019-06-06

Will the current geopolitical tensions affect the wireless industry’s ability to maintain single global technology standards?

Technology companies choose to compete within a single standard or engage in battle-of-standards.  Beyond companies’ decisions, governments also shape standardization, constraining the private sector’s choices.  National and regional standard bodies have traditionally shaped wireless standards, but that changed over time. 

The novelty of 4G was the strengthening of 3GPP, a public-private standard organization that engaged technology companies from all over the world.  3GPP produced 4G as a single global standard adopted voluntarily everywhere and endorsed by the International Telecommunications Union.  The unifying spirit of 4G continued in 5G.

In recent months, however, industry executives and analysts have begun to doubt single-global standards will survive a new wave of technology-focused schism driven by U.S.-China relations. “If China continues to push back, and we continue to push back, there will soon be dual technology standards,” said Rebecca Fannin.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, speaking at the Brooklyn 5G Summit last April, accused the Chinese industry of attempting to “use international multi-stakeholder organizations to skew standards in their favor.”  O’Rielly said that one company had recently raised an “inexplicable” objection to a proposed change that would allow “carrier aggregation of millimeter wave and paired sub-6 GHz spectrum using new dynamic spectrum sharing technology,” reported Toby Youell from Policy Tracker.

The millimeter wave spectrum is higher than typical cellular bands (sub-6 GHz) and is available between 24 GHz and 100 GHz. The FCC has already auctioned off 1.55 GHz in 24 GHz and 28 GHz and will offer an additional 3.4 GHz in 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz in December, a total of almost 5 GHz of new bandwidth, an amount of spectrum that is unheard of in wireless.  Typically, a country today offers less than 1 GHz for all operators.  Operators will use mmWave initially for ultra-broadband and immersive media, deploying macro and small cells.

Universities and private R&D centers in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are investing heavily in making the use of these mmWave bands viable.  Mobile operators are already placing their bets on this spectrum despite technological challenges. Meanwhile, China so far hasn’t shown much interest in higher frequency bands, focusing on mid-bands from 3.3 GHz to 5 GHz. China’s lack of interest in mmWave is hard to understand, but its 5G policymakers seem satisfied with what mid-bands can do to achieve their 5G priorities in smart cities and industry 4.0.  There’s no reason for alarm, however, that the U.S. and China focus on different spectrum ranges for 5G—respectively, mmWave and mid-bands.  The U.S. will catch-up on mid-bands, and China could do the same in mmWave. 

While a split in wireless standards for 5G and beyond is farfetched, it could nonetheless occur if the U.S. blocks Chinese companies’ engagement in global technology markets. 

Huawei is China’s most influential company in wireless standards.  However, many other Chinese tech firms benefit from global markets.  Shutting down Chinese companies’ access to international technology markets would eliminate China’s incentives to engage in common standards setting.  After all, it was the rise of Huawei, ZTE, Xiaomi, Oppo, Vivo, Lenovo, and others that glued China into common mobile standards.  Similarly, if those firms lose global market access, China will rethink its standards strategies.

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