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Nationalizing the Imaginary 5G Network?

To put it bluntly, the proposal cited in Axios story on “Trump team considers nationalizing 5G network” doesn’t make sense on a number of levels. The real danger comes if this indeed represents the NSC’s failure to understand Internet style connectivity. The proposal may just be the work of an NSC staffer who accepted all the 5G hype as if it were real. (This story from Recode says just that).

I credit the Axios article for having some skepticism. For example, it asks what protecting a network or, more to the point, only the mobile network, has to do with the “AI algorithm battles.” And hardening the network rather than making it more resilient only makes it brittle.

In fact, the whole idea of nationalizing the network presumes there is a well-defined network rather than today’s generic connectivity that isn’t confined to the telecommunications infrastructure. But then this is only about 5G and not even the bulk of the infrastructure which is wired. The threats are to applications and services that are at the endpoints and devices rather than inside a network.

If we really want to compete with China, we must learn from what they got right—assuring coverage everywhere. And we can do better by adopting an Internet native approach rather than yet another telecommunications network.

The real value of this story may be in forcing us to think about the contradictions in the 5G story which is framed in terms of legacy telecom vs. the more generic connectivity of the Internet. The idea of having a common infrastructure is very good.

The main Axios article and the related story “How 5G works” are useful in understanding the fallacies in the 5G hype including, but not limited to ...

  • The article cites the need for many additional transmitters [sic—transceivers] because the signals are easily blocked. That means there will be a lot of dead spots—which doesn’t jibe with the idea that this is vital ubiquitous high-speed connectivity. And the telecom business model means that users extending the coverage are stealing Internet.
  • 5G is supposed to provide guarantees of low latency. That was the argument for the SS7 network reserving capacity for each connection because it was deemed absolutely necessary for voice. VoIP put a lie to that premise. And reserving capacity has side effects like creating scarcity by taking capacity off the table and creating the concept of a busy signal rather than graceful fallback. If you depend on the network for low latency your application is brittle and not safe for the very applications that require guarantees.
  • 5G is supposed to be necessary for self-driving (autonomous) cars. But that doesn’t make sense since they have to be autonomous! And we can’t guarantee coverage anyway. At CES there were attempts to show the power of constantly streaming video from cars, but the story fell apart as soon as you asked why. At least the article acknowledges that most IoT doesn’t generate much traffic, so it doesn’t need 5G at all.

The other example cited is VR which doesn’t make sense. High-performance local links make sense but extending that experience across the world won’t work the same way, and there is not a scintilla of evidence that there is any demand. Citing such examples contribute to my feeling that this was not a serious proposal but rather an attempt to take 5G as the answer and then find a problem that required it.

Networking is something we do with infrastructure rather than depending upon having a physical network which can be nationalized. Instead, as with highways we build the common infrastructure by interconnecting local systems and complement it with regional and national connectivity. This is possible because we don’t rely on a provider who owns the entire intelligent network, so it can make promises by allocating channels. Instead we use the intelligence in our devices to assemble a whole out of the parts.

With the Internet approach we can mix and match technologies. Choosing a high-performance radio for a particular link should be an engineering choice. The idea that we need to deploy an entirely new technology everywhere along with a new business model harks back to the days when we had to replace the entire broadcast ecosystem just to add a new format like HDTV.

Perhaps 5G mania will force us to come to terms with the new landscape of best efforts connectivity and move beyond building a different intelligent network for each application.

For more on 5G see 5G (and Telecom) vs. The Internet

By Bob Frankston, IEEE Fellow

Bob Frankston is best known for writing VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet. While at Microsoft, he was instrumental in enabling home networking. Today, he is addressing the issues associated with coming to terms with a world being transformed by software.

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