The 21st Century Will Begin in 2020 and in China
By Narayanan Balakrishnan

The 21st Century Will Begin in 2020 and in China

Jun. 17, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Even the US does not deny that China is ahead when it comes to 5G technology. One of the reasons and perhaps the main reason that the US is placing sanctions and restrictions on China is to halt or slow down the adoption of Huawei’s 5G telecom technology by the rest of the world. Since both the US and China actually agree that China is ahead in this technology, we can assume that China is indeed leading and that the sense of triumph in China about this is justified.

But there is “End of Technology” in technology any more than there is “End of History” in politics or history. As I write this, Elon Musk is already talking about 6G and trying to encircle the earth with more than 10,000 low altitude satellites to finally free the mobile phones from land based receiving towers.

There is only talk now about 6G and the fate of earlier sky-based communications such as the ill fated “Iridium” system launched by Motorola in the 1990s should serve as a cautionary tale. However, it is certain that 5G technology will not forever be the latest technology and in fact may not even be the leading technology for more than ten years, especially if a “cheaper” or easier to use technology comes along.

As “experts” and ordinary people line up to take the side of China or the US and suddenly become passionate about radio spectrum, it is important to realize that most predictions about which technology will prevail in the future have gotten it wrong.

At the beginning of the last century in 1900, a British journal asked many “experts” to predict how the future technology of that century would look like. There were many predictions about steamships with ten funnels since steamships were the latest technology for transport then. But no one predicted the airplanes that would be invented just three years into the new century in 1903. But it was the airplane and not the ship with ten funnels that revolutionized transport in the new century.

The experts in London were not stupid. It was indeed difficult to take those amateurs tinkering with flimsy aircraft made from canvas and steel wires seriously while massive iron ships were being built in Glasgow. Just as it was difficult to take seriously the car which were travelling at 5 miles per hour when trains were travelling at about 100 miles per hour and US tycoons were building palatial train stations – the “airports” of those days – such as “Grand Central” and “Penn Central” in New York City.

The horse and carriage industry in the US was a vibrant one and one company was producing them at a rate of 130,000 carriages a year. The main worry then was how to get rid of all that horse manure that was littering the streets and creating a health hazard. And it is interesting to note how naïve experts were a century ago when they thought the introduction of the automobile would lead to a reduction in accidents! You see, horses tend to panic on seeing many things (that is why carriage horses wear eyeshades to restrict their vision) and experts claimed that since cars would not panic there would be fewer accidents!

The relationship between breakthrough technologies and how they impact the societies or the countries where such “new” technologies were invented is a complex one and we should simply assume that with Huawei and 5G, China will be the winner for the next century.

The 21st century has been idling so far. Over the next couple of years, it will start speeding up and this new “5G Epoch” will reach its zenith in China.

Amateurs at the turn of the century were already tinkering with “moving pictures” but not many predicted their coming influence later. It was only in 1920s, after the first World War, that the technological and cultural forms of what we think of as the “Twentieth Century” began. The Jazz Age, with its radios, “talking” movies, and short skirts arrived at that time. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, we may well be approaching our own “Jazz Age” moment and the arrival of the 5G standard in telecommunications will be the harbinger of the “real” 21st century.

Mobile “smart” phones are capturing our imagination now because they enable us to communicate, perhaps over communicate with others. But the 21st century will arrive only with the arrival of 5G standard in mobile communications which, though already working as a pilot project in various countries, will only be rolled out on a large scale in the year 2020.

News that mobile phone sales are set to decline may foreshadow what may be coming as this century gathers steam. One announcement was that sales of mobile phones worldwide declined more than 6 percent during the last quarter of 2018, the first decline registered since the large-scale manufacturing of mobile phones began. More importantly, companies such as CISCO are already announcing that most telecom operators will be able to achieve something around 80 percent of the 5G properties with software and minimal hardware upgrades instead of having to invest in whole new systems of hardware. What this means is that “almost 5G” will be coming to your neighborhood sooner than you expect.

Within the next five years, mobile phones will join the analog phones that had dials as being old fashioned gadgets. I remember interviewing a Hong Kong Telecom engineer who knew much about telephony in 1993 and he insisted that for a long time to come analog phones and mobile phones would “co-exist” and that all this talk about mobile phones replacing existing analog technology was only in the projections made by amateurs. Since mobile phones at that time looked like bricks and weighed as much too, the engineer was justified in thinking that way, using incremental projection of changing technology and popular tastes rather than exponential changes.

We all know what happened to analog phones. I have one sitting in the antique display cabinet and our son looks at it as a strange object. Come to think of it, I am supposed to have returned that black monster to Hong Kong Telecom when I disconnected the analog number. Sorry, Hong Kong Telecom!

The new 5G standard will not be of much use to the mobile phone which is already getting all the speed it needs. It will be gadgets like driverless cars that will need 5G because they need two-way communications and instructions, unlike the mobile device which is mostly a one-way receiver.

Driverless cars are already operating in China now. Soon, the rich and powerful people of China and Hong Kong will no doubt use those driverless cars parked outside the Landmark as a symbol for showing off, not to speak of the Legislative Council members. At that point, trying to show off your mobile phone will become as much of a faux pax as trying to show off your short-wave radio now. One good thing about driverless cars will be that we can finally get rid of all those idling cars waiting in front of fancy office buildings and offices, waiting for their fat cat executives and goods laden rich wives.

The 21st century has been idling so far. Over the next couple of years, it will start speeding up and this new “5G Epoch” will reach its zenith in China. But this century still has eight decades to go. We may yet see an 8G before this century ends!

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