Fifth Generation (5G) Cellular Communication: Technology and Geopolitics
Brig (Dr) Ashok Pathak (Retd.)
What Makes 5G Wireless Communication So Different?

The steady growth from first to fourth generation mobile communication was smooth, rapid and vastly beneficial to the Information, and Communication Technology (ICT) related industries. This dramatic technological growth was devoid of any major political debate or trade wars. The5G wireless communication has triggered multifaceted conflicts within and among nations not experienced earlier. Why is this so?

The earlier growth was led by the US with marginal competition from the Western European countries. This time it is China that is leading the 5G revolution. It is also the second largest economy in the world. Secondly, with growing penetration of mobile networks in wealth creation the nations that own the 5G technology will control the global wealth creation activities in manufacturing and services sectors. Thirdly, the dependence of modern defence systems on 5G mobile network will provide unintended access to the Chinese into defence systems and weapon platforms of nations using the 5G network. They will be tied to its ‘China dominated’ supply chains. Fourthly, the international trade as also security alignments has undergone major shifts in the wake of suspected Chinese role in the outbreak of C0VID-19 pandemic.

Thus to understand the critical importance and likely impact of the 5G roll out we need to look at three major aspects.

  • Technology.
  • Geopolitics.
  • Post COVID-19 realignment.

The basic feature of first to fifth generation wireless/ cellular networks is the frequency at which the information is carried. The first generation systems used frequencies in the range of 824 to 894 Mega Hertz (MHz). Mega is for ten raised to the power six. The second generation systems used more than double this range from 890 to 960 MHz. The third generation used Giga Hertz (GHz) band. Giga is ten raised to the power nine; typically 1.8 to 2.5 GHz. In the fourth generation the frequency band increased to the range of 2 to 8 GHz. (1) While the first generation mobile was based on analogue systems subsequent generation migrated to digital communication which were initially ‘circuit switch’ networks and later moved to advanced technologies of packet switching.(2) In 5G the frequency band ranged from 3 to 39 GHz. The E Band frequencies in 5G millimeter waves included 71 GHz, 76 GHz, 81 and 86 GHz bands. Thus 5G is an unprecedented leap.

For establishing the cellular network the frequency needs to be produced, information superimposed (modulation), transmitted and received accurately with adequate security (demodulation). This brings in a host of components such as frequency generators, transmitters, receivers, antennae, base station, modulating and digitizing techniques and equipment, switching equipment, security algorithm and so on. As the frequency of communication increases so does the complexities of the related equipment, processes and software; as also the cost.

For the 5G network the most critical components are the opto-electronic oscillator with low frequency drift, low power base stations (small cells), Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) antennae, Beam Foaming devices and centralized Radio Access Network (RAN). All these components operate in the frequency band mentioned above. How does that matter?

Firstly, from first to the fifth generation it is the electromagnetic wave propagation that we are dealing with. These waves travel at the speed of light. The second and most important aspect of frequency is the volume of information that can be carried in a given frequency band. This is popularly known as bits of information carried per-second. The 5G networks carry information more than ten times than that carried by 4G networks. As the waves carry more bits of information the network gets more prone to being controlled by software and not by the hardware. That is how in the 4G network a radio operating in the very high frequency (VHF) band can be converted to a radio working in Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) band or High Frequency (HF) band through software sent from a remote location. We get Software Defined Radios (SDR) in 4 G and 5G networks. Earlier we needed separate radio set for each band. If we replace the radio by a digital camera, refrigerator, washing machine, power generator, weapon platform, ship, battle tank, air craft and so on connected to the network which are controlled remotely by Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems- we enter the realm of Internet of Things (IoT). The frequency (and hence the data speeds) used in 4G and 5G networks make this possible. The 5G IoT works more efficiently and faster in this respect. At times 5G is also called ‘Internet of Everything’. Another shift in 5G communication is in the type of coding required in 5G communication to maintain high fidelity of communication. Rate-less Space Time Block Codes (RSTBC) are used to ensure accuracy.

Now the flip side, as software becomes the dominant player in control and operation of the network and the ‘things’ cyber threats increase exponentially. Secondly, frequency bands used in 5G networks are prone to much higher obstructions, attenuation. This leads to smaller cell size in 5G network. Typically outdoor distances in 5G communications are around 50 Meters and indoor distances are 10 meters. Thirdly, the components used in the network are highly miniaturized, complex to design, extremely expensive (as of now). Since the cell size in 5G networks is far smaller than 3G and 4G network we need very high proportion of expensive components for the same geographical areas. This entails higher establishment, maintenance and service costs. (See references 3, 4 and 5 for basic architectures and utilization of 5G network and its interoperation with 4G networks)


The 5G applications encompass almost all individual and societal activities from education, entertainment, and health, manufacturing and services sector business enterprises as also domain of national defense. The 5G enabled mobile will empower the individual with massive data, the network will make work or study from home much smoother making travelling for work or for education less frequent. The low latency factor will enable long distance surgery and remote monitoring of health possible.

In terms of reach in a given area the 5G network will be able to service 1000 times more devices compared to the 4G network. With the added facility of ‘slicing’ the same band will enable handling the complex and simple tasks possible from the same ‘stream’ of frequencies. The manufacturing sector will be immensely benefitted by 5G network for improving quality at low cost, that is how the South Koreans were first to use the 5G network (Samsung) in 2019.

The network will accelerate proliferation of high capacity broadband communication in rural areas. Combined with Artificial Intelligence, remote sensors, drones and big data the network will help soil testing and preservation, drip irrigation, green harvesting, warehouse management, tracked logistics for transforming agriculture and rural economy.

Implications for India

Signal chip of Bengaluru launched the first semi-conductor chips for 4G/LTE, 5G New Radio (5GNR) modem during the last week of February 2019 (Economic Times, 27 February 2019) breaking into the elite club of the world and this will have huge implications for India’s data security and data sovereignty, besides the positive economic implication. (6)

This achievement coupled with our capabilities in software development can make us a serious contender to become a major player in 5G supply chain. We can exploit this success in the post COVID-19 global environment (not so favourable to China) by becoming an important part of the global supply chain for 5G roll out. Besides we can transform our health sector, agriculture and rural economy by exploiting the application of 5G network (7)


During the first three generations of wireless communication, the US was the undisputed leader. They invented it, operationalized the technologies, and marketed it to the rest of the world. In the bargain, the US private sector made huge profits from 1980 to as late as 2010. The only competitors were the European companies who wanted Global System of Mobile Communications (GSM) to prevail as against the Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technique being used by the US. However, by the time 3G matured, GSM standards were almost out and we now have CDMA for all subsequent infrastructure. In 2015 China decided to change all this. They envisioned self- sufficiency in semiconductor production by 2025. The ‘Made in China’ thrust started in 2015. Since then China has outspent the US by $24 billion. In their National Integrated Circuit Investment Fund, they already spent $31.5 billion. Besides, in their five-year plan they have pledged $400 billion in their 5G related investments. Meanwhile Huawei their biggest company in 5G—and under the eye of the storm—enhanced its profits from $28 billion in 2009 to $107 billion in 2018. In 2009, all the top ten Internet companies were American. In 2019, four of these companies are Chinese.

The five companies that lead the 5G rollout are Huawei and ZTE of China, Ericsson of Sweden, Nokia of Finland, and Samsung of South Korea. Of these, the Chinese companies offer great cost advantage in all the spheres—technology, devices, service and software. Besides these companies operate in the 3 to 6 GHz band (the lower band of 5G, the higher band goes to 39 GHz and beyond) which is being used by the US Department of Defence. The Americans felt that fielding Chinese infra and software for 5G rollout will compromise their cyber security at all the levels starting from the hardware (trapdoors) to software. They do not trust the Chinese assurances to the contrary for very valid reasons. This is what the Americans used to do to the CISCO components when CISCO had market monopoly in network devices and related software! Nokia did the same to the Chinese. In the pre COVID-19 period Germany and UK did not agree to the US advice of banning Chinese 5G companies. Considering the huge cost advantage, they felt that the security concerns can be managed. Italy too was hesitant in imposing complete ban on Chinese 5G companies. India had declared her own ambition to compete in the 5G rollout but was not against the Chinese companies. Hence in the pre COVID period the Chinese appeared to have made inroads in Western Europe and parts of Asia. The non-military usage of 5G is so big that the Department of Defence in US did not have the buyers’ advantage. Even if the US decided to block 5G rollout by Huawei in the US, the Chinese had big enough market to recover the cost and make huge profit. The US government was unable to stop their own private sector from dealing with the Chinese 5G companies. The presidential order to US companies, to not deal with ZTE, was revoked within five days since China blocked 200 US companies in retaliation. This changed drastically after COVID-19 and hardening of US opposition to the Chinese leadership in 5G roll out. (see end notes 8,9,10)

Post COVID-19 Realignment

Huawei -the leading Chinese company for 5G roll out has been losing major markets post COVID-19 global realignment. The European Union (EU) has blocked Huawei and sided with the non -Chinese companies such as Nokia of Finland and Ericsson of Sweden. The UK too has blocked Huawei post pandemic. The French and German government have decided to block state centric Chinese companies in ICT sector due to growing concern for cyber threat. Political parties in Germany such as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have registered strong opposition against Chinese companies.

ASEAN countries so far appeared to be not so hostile towards the Chinese big companies such as Huawei and ZTE. Vietnam has been an exception. Given the turmoil in the South China Sea Vietnam has bypassed Huawei and other Chinese companies and has announced indigenous products to be used in 4G and 5G networks. More countries in the region are likely to be wary of the Chinese dominated supply chain.

In India Airtel had earlier decided to buy from Huawei for 5G roll out. But they have signed a contract with Nokia instead leaving Huawei out of the race. Reliance Jio the biggest player in the Indian telecom segment proudly announced that they donot use any Chinese component for 4G or 5G network and will maintain this policy in future.
The US has stopped chip making companies that are using American technologies to supply chips to Chinese companies. This has very serious implications for the Chinese who are using the global supply chains for chips. The most critical aspect in this ‘semiconductor chips’ warfare is the involvement of Taiwan. In general Taiwan has fifty five percent share of the global semiconductor chips market. But when it comes to packing more components in smaller chips the Taiwanese company ( Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company -TSMC) is not only the market leader but happens to be one of the two companies that has the sub five nano-meter capability in making semiconductor chips; the other one being Samsung of South Korea. When it comes to three nano-meter semiconductor chips, Taiwan will be the only country producing these most sophisticated and most critical components for 5G frequencies in millimetre band. Hence, Taiwan remains important to China and thus the need for direct involvement of the US in defending Taiwan. This is where deployment of two super carriers of US Navy in South China Sea comes in to play. The US will not be shying away from deploying more if the need arises. (See end notes 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)


Proliferation of 5G network has just commenced. It will be decades before it replaces 4 G network to some substantial degree. Thus the two generations will live and inter operate for some times to come. But where ever 5G network becomes operational it will revolutionize the sector-be it defence, business, governance, agriculture, health and so on. Hence the race for rolling out 5G network will be intensely contested internationally. Given the type of ambitions and optimism in India to become a reckonable force at the global level the new spectrum provides a golden opportunity to join the elite club and embark on the path of rapid inclusive growth.

Recent events suggest that India is serious in exploiting the 5G pay offs. Indian collaboration with Samsung of South Korea, overtures with Taiwan without fearing Chinese reservations, commercial tie ups with Nokia of Finland are moves in this direction. Coupled with this are our indigenous 5G technology achievements in Bangalore, the trajectories for accelerated growth are being defined. For a smooth ride on these trajectories we need to stick to rapid reforms in multiple sectors such as labour laws, institutional robustness, political leadership at centre and state levels, education and skills development sector and most importantly in building an innovative collaborative and harmonious human capital.

End Notes
  1. Behrouz A Forouzan Data Communication and Networking Fifth Edition Mc Graw Hill Education (India) Private Limited , 2013, ISBN 13 9781259064753(page 473 to 488 basics of mobile cellular communications)

  2. Andrew S Tanenbaum, David J Weatherall Computer Networks Fifth Edition 2014, Dorling Kindersley (India) Private Limited ISBN 9789332518742(page 153 to 168 growth from analog to digital and CDMA)
  6. Economics Times 27 Feb 2019. https://economictimes. indigenous
  7. Press Information Bureau Government of India Ministry of Communication 27 Feb 2019 (Accessed 5 August 2019).
  8. National Digital Communication Policy 2018 in/sites/default/files/Final%20NDCP-2018.pdf?download=1( Accessed 5 August 2019)
  9. Jan-Peter Kleinhans, 5G Vs National Security: A European Perspective Feb 2019
  10. Milo Medin and Gilman Louie, The 5G Ecosystem: Risks &Opportunities for DoD. Defence Innovation Board, 3 April 2019
  11. The National Security Challenges of Fifth Generation (5G) Wireless Communications: Winning the Race to 5G, Securely, Intelligence and National Security Alliance, Cyber Council, June 2019.
  12. semiconductor-chips-for-4g-lte-5g-nrmodems/ articleshow/68185877.cms (Accessed 5 August 2019)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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