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5G Foresight

Respected telecom engineer explains why the success of large-scale commercial 5G hinges on cost, power dissipation and reliability

By NewsChina Updated May.1

According to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), China will pre-commercialize 5G this year and achieve large-scale commercial use in 2020. 

5G will substantially increase internet speed, boost smart city infrastructure, make the Internet of Things more effective, and drive industrial and social transformations. As a result, the worldwide race for 5G has so far been fierce. 

NewsChina recently secured an exclusive interview with Wu Hequan, scholar at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and president of the Internet Society of China, to shed light on the applications of 5G, the challenges of its commercial use and security issues. 
NewsChina: What are the major development phases of 5G technology? 

Wu Hequan: In February 2013, the MIIT established the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT)-2020 (5G) Advancement Group. As early as 2006, China started 16 major sci-tech projects including the new generation of broadband telecommunications. The group coordinated the work of enterprises and research institutes involved in 5G, and has been promoting standardization and experiments involving the frequency spectrum and appraisal of scientific solutions. 

While China started chip research relatively early, it takes time for commercial chips to hit the market before the release of international standards. Base station chips have already been viable enough for commercial use since the end of last year. 
NC: Is it commercially viable because of the approval of the international standalone 5G network standards in June? 

WH: Mobile terminal chips require the most advanced technologies for production, such as seven-nanometer and even five-nanometer technology. The benefits of 5G are reflected in three main application scenarios. First, enhancing mobile broadband, the standards for which are virtually complete. Second, high reliability and low delay, the standards for which have yet to be fulfilled. Third, standards for stronger connectivity, such as the Internet of Things, which are slated for completion by the end of 2019. 

At the Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona, Spain, some mobile terminals and chips were on display, but were not fully commercially viable. Research on chips has developed quickly and nowadays, 5G terminals are the same size as those for 4G and even foldable. The production of chips takes intensive amounts of technology, capital and talent.  
NC: What does that mean for China? 

WH: Challenge. Currently, domestic production lines can’t produce seven-nanometer mobile processors. Huawei can design chips, but the final design process is done in Taiwan and the tooling software is from other countries. An advanced production line costs tens of billions of US dollars, and Western countries place export restrictions on equipment to China. In addition, many of the precision machinery devices have to be imported, which reflects China’s relatively weak industrial base. 
NC: How far are we away from mass 5G commercial use? 

WH: To date, the size of mobile terminals is suited for commercial use. It will take a lot of effort to improve reliability and reduce costs. Some companies have already released 5G foldable smartphones priced more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,490). It will be difficult for most consumers to afford smartphones over 4,000 yuan (US$595) once mass commercial use is viable. Also, a varied supply of terminal products is necessary to meet customer demand. 
NC: Does terminal mainly refer to smartphones? 

WH: From a long-term perspective, the 5G market mainly caters to the needs of industrial applications but in the early period of commercial use, it mainly serves customers with video and data applications. While smartphones are the main form of terminal, 5G terminals also include VR/AR terminals, vehicle terminals, high-definition cameras and 5G home gateways. 
NC: What are the main challenges ahead for commercial 5G? 

WH: It will take a long time for 5G to cover the service areas of 4G. There are several times more 5G base stations needed than for 4G, and each of their locations need cooperation with local governments. Alongside with the expansion of the network, further problems will have to be addressed during the process of commercial use. Meanwhile, it will take a lot of effort in sci-tech innovation and application for customers to reap the benefits of 5G. The success of commercial use hinges on pricing standards that the public can afford. Preconditions for large-scale commercial use are low cost, low power dissipation and high reliability. 
NC: Besides chips, what other aspects of terminals need improvement? 

WH: The mobile phone industry has enhanced development of LCD screen technology. Phone batteries are also very important – they require high energy density, long standby time and minimal heat during use. Smartphones are embedded with many processors, including small cameras with high pixel image quality. In short, mobile phones are delicate mass-market products. 
NC: Is 5G safer than 4G? 

WH: Network security will not change because of 5G. That doesn’t mean 5G doesn’t have its own safety concerns. 5G requires more complex terminals and larger-scale software, which is more prone to loopholes. This complexity requires more safety protection measures. Safety issues will always be there. 
NC: The public is becoming increasingly dependent on the internet. Will the public become more vulnerable? 

WH: When the industrial internet is widely used in major infrastructural areas including civil aviation, high-speed trains and power grids, it will incur heavy costs if the internet isn’t secure enough against potential risks. Investment in internet safety and construction has to be conducted simultaneously and safety issues have to be addressed through management and technological innovation.  

5G will mainly cater to industrial applications. In comparison to applications for consumers, industrial applications have higher security requirements. 5G products and service providers need to find and eliminate loopholes, improve their service and respond more quickly to problems. We cannot give up on digitalizing the industrial sector because of safety concerns. Security and development are the two areas of 5G that need to be carried out at the same pace. 
NC: 2019 is generally believed to be the first year of commercial 5G. What are the development priorities for 5G in China? 

WH: Technology needs to keep improving. The commercial use of 4G has been undergoing continuous technological advancements since it became commercially viable. Just like mobile phones, terminal enterprises released a new model a year or every six months. Mobile operators have to consider complete network coverage, improve service quality and develop new applications to provide better services to 5G customers.  

Operators have to reduce costs while speeding up broadband construction and bringing down internet rates. Regulators have to make sure the big three Chinese telecom operators – China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom – are both competitive and balanced, benefiting the public while remaining profitable, and tightening up their safety supervision.