By Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy Editor
In the great U.S.-China decoupling, the U.S. picked up a key ally this week, with the UK’s announcement that it would reverse itself and ban Huawei’s 5G network, just in time for the U.S. to slap travel sanctions on Huawei employees. The implication is clear: the U.S. and its allies are now committed to countering China’s 5G network by building one of their own.
Call it the first battle of the U.S.-China tech war, the contest to define – and dominate – the technology Operating Systems of the 21st Century.
When it comes to 5G, believe the hype. Without question, 5G will be hugely transformational: 10 times faster than its precursor 4G and 100 times faster than 3G, but that raw number hardly captures the impact of a network that enables near real-time downloads – making possible all manner of Virtual Reality applications and the inter-webbing of the IoT, the Internet of Things. In short, 5G will mark a milestone in the migration of our physical world to an online Operating System.
You can see the opportunity – and the risk – at a glance. How great will it be to manage your home networks from your phone, to have all core elements of a “digital you” available at the press of a fingerprint or retina scan?
And how dangerous, should that all that information – all that power – be hacked or infiltrated by a rogue actor. Or a sovereign state.
Which is why 5G is as fraught with security risk as it is technology promise, and why the U.S. is right to be worried about a 5G world dominated by Huawei as China’s national champion.
In a rabidly partisan political climate, Huawei worry is one of the few afflictions that affect both U.S. political parties. In a June policy announcement dwarfed by COVID mania, the White House released its “National Strategy to Secure 5G.” The slender 7-page document does an admirable job recognizing the danger that criminals, terror groups and malign state actors would have to turn 5G into a weapon against US infrastructure, or even simply an all-seeing surveillance tool. More recently, the Biden presidential campaign planted its own 5G flag, warning that the new network is one of a number of technologies where China is focused on “research and commercialization… in an effort to overtake American technological primacy and dominate future industries.”
What neither plan does in any detail is reckon with the unique material inputs required for the U.S. to begin its own 5G buildout. Here, as in its blinding speeds, 5G is like no network that’s come before.
In a world where we’ve become used to invisible networks – wireless communication, data floating in The Cloud – 5G is a singularly “physical” system. As industry executive Brian Lavallee notes, “It’s rather ironic that the projected performance goals of 5G wireless will depend on the availability of wireline fiber.”
And lots of it, as 5G signal transmission requires significant “densifying,” a clunky neologism that means just what it says: 5G transponder relays will need to be placed not only on towers, telephone poles and buildings, but on street lights, stop signs, manhole covers, public trash cans, and rooftops. 4G wavelengths have a range of about 10 miles. 5G wavelengths have a range of about 1,000 feet – not even 2% of 4G’s range.
For the spatially challenged, imagine a 10 mile “box” – big enough to fit a city the size of Washington, D.C. – requiring transponder relays at each corner, for a total of four.
For 5G, that same 100-square mile box would need relays at intervals not every 10 miles, but every 1000 feet. As a result, the number of transponder relays rises from 4 to around 2,500. And that’s before adding cells to account for line-of-site issues in urban areas – even a stand of trees can block a 5G signal — and deflections from glass-faced buildings. Multiply 5G across the country, and that’s millions of relay nodes.
And that’s the problem. All that fiber wireline is EDFL – Erbium-Doped Fiber Laser – requiring one of the rarest of rare earths. With the U.S. currently 100% import-dependent for the rare earths, where does the world get its Erbium?
So as the U.S. thumbs its nose at Huawei, it’s worth wondering how China will react when it comes to selling American and allied nation companies the Erbium they need to build a 5G alternative.
Of course, materials science engineers would be quick to point out there are alternatives. If you don’t have Erbium, you can use Thulium or Ytterbium – unfortunately, two more heavy rare earths the U.S. currently produces none of.
Once again, China is the world’s leading producer.
That’s something to bear in mind as the President and Congress turn to the next round of emergency federal funding, with an eye on 5G and re-shoring critical U.S. manufacturing capacity – and as the presidential campaigns one-up each other in the “Tough on China” competition.
The fact is, the U.S. has deposits rich in the very rare earths needed to build our own 5G, as well as all of the 22 minerals and metals on the U.S. Government’s Critical Mineral List for which China – right now – is either the world’s leading producer or the United States’ leading supplier, or both.
So the next time you read an article that talks about reshoring America’s manufacturing capability or bringing critical supply chains back from China to the U.S., bear in mind that, beyond the rhetoric of decoupling, there’s the hard reality that manufacturing requires ready access to the materials that make things work. It’s one thing to ban Huawei’s 5G, and quite another to build an American alternative – when China controls the minerals and metals it’s made of.
Daniel McGroarty is principal of Carmot Strategic Group Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based advisory focused on critical minerals. He served at senior levels at the White House and Pentagon, and has testified on rare earths and critical minerals issues in the U.S. House and Senate.