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The Real Fight for the Future of 5G

Who Will Patrol the Borders of a New Network?

A 5G base station antenna at a Huawei facility in Dongguan, China, May 2019 Jason Lee / Reuters

In late October, Germany and China began commercial-scale rollouts of 5G, the wireless technology infrastructure that is transforming the way the world computes. Machines and people will still talk to each other over the borderless network we call the Internet. But with 5G, a new networking infrastructure is emerging, dependent on the Internet but distinct from it and subject to much more government and private control.

With 5G it is possible to do enormous amounts of computing at very high speeds and without having to connect the input device—a cell phone, say, or a self-driving car—to a wire of any kind. But those high speeds are possible only if the rest of the system (signal towers, base stations, distributed servers, and the megascale centers that house the data and do a great deal of computing themselves) is physically near enough to these input devices. Having your phone, car, or pacemaker in constant contact with vast computational power in the so-called cloud sounds amazingly untethered and extraterritorial. Yet in its physicality and focus on location, the emerging system is more grounded than the Internet ever was.

Whether control over 5G will be exercised principally by states or companies remains to be seen. But the implications for surveillance, security, and national prosperity are enormous, and yet policymakers and business executives have hardly begun to address them.

INTO THE CLOUDS

The Internet has proved remarkably resistant to state governance. Its use can certainly be shaped by expensive government initiatives such as China’s Great Firewall or the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But multilateral attempts to control the Internet itself have so far failed, mainly because the deliberately impenetrable “global Internet community”—including Internet service providers and sui generis governance institutions such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Society—is dedicated, in the best geek spirit, to avoiding state capture. That posture may change, but for now the community’s obdurateness and the jealousies of states, which have kept

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