What’s Really Going on With China and 6G?

July 13, 2022

Written by Crystal Wilde

Will China win the race to set the standards for 6G – and what will it mean if it does? These are the questions the digital watchers of the world are asking as we look towards IMT-2030. Not a country known for its transparency, China has recently outlined a vague commitment to invest in 6G and announced some so-called 6G firsts, but, unlike rhetoric, details are thin on the ground. Read on as we try to unpack what we know about China and 6G, what we don’t know and what we might expect.

Why the World Is Wondering

After being a follower for 2G, 3G and 4G, China became a global leader for 5G. By the end of last year, President Xi Jinping’s government had built the largest 5G mobile infrastructure in the world, with 1.43 million base stations, accounting for over 60% of the global total. Having only had its 5G network turned on for a month, Beijing officially launched R&D into 6G in November 2019, ahead of its initial 2020 schedule. The next generation of mobile network was also touted as a top priority in new details emerging from the country’s 14th Five-Year Plan this January.

Many analysts predicted 6G development would slow in China on account of the trade war with the US, first escalated during the presidency of Donald Trump. Piling suspicion on Chinese companies as an extension of the government, Trump warned against Huawei — the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker — effectively politicising 5G by claiming the Chinese firm could spy on nation states if allowed to implement their networks.

President Xi has, however, proven undeterred by US-imposed sanctions and blacklists and is forging ahead by mobilising state-run companies, universities and offering incentives for innovators. “Let’s assume China can at least do what they did with 5G, which would put them right out in front,” says Jeffry Towson, a professor in digital strategy at CEIBS (the China Europe International Business School). “In the next iteration, are they also just part of the frontier or are they the frontier?”

What We Know

We know that President Xi puts a lot of emphasis on the domestic development of technology. In 2015 he launched the “mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation” policy, which saw tax breaks for businesses working in key technologies and entire city districts transformed into government-subsidised incubators.

More recently a group, consisting of several government departments as well as 37 universities, research institutes and enterprises, was set up to work exclusively on 6G. As well as providing support for R&D in the form of university funding and business tax breaks, Beijing has also stated its desire to be involved in the creation of international standards for the network.

Huawei was the first Chinese company to announce that it was starting work on 6G in 2019. This has been followed by various research collaborations with other Chinese household names, such as ZTE; international brands, such as Nokia and Ericsson; and state-owed telecoms companies China Unicom and China Mobile. Huawei is going big to beat the US sanctions, spending USD22.1 billion on R&D in 2021, compared to just USD4.9 million spent by Ericsson.

China also has the most 6G patents in the world, according to a survey of 20,000 applications by Nikkei and the Cyber Create Institute. China had 40.3% of the 6G filings, mainly focused on 6G infrastructure and primarily filed by Huawei and state-run companies such as State Grid Corporation of China and China Aerospace Science and Technology.

We’ve also seen several so-called “6G firsts” from China. The “world’s first 6G satellite” went into orbit from Shanxi province in November 2020, while a lab in Nanjing reportedly achieved the world’s fastest real-time wireless communication in January this year.

What We Don’t Know

They say the devil is in the detail, but we don’t have much of that. We know that the Chinese government is subsidising 6G research, but we don’t know exactly how much money or what benefits are going where and to whom.

We also don’t know what, if any, direction the state is pushing research in, or what individual companies are working on until they announce it. And while Chinese companies have clearly filed for many 6G patents, without being able to view them we really have no idea how groundbreaking they are or how likely they will be to play a role in the 6G world. With so many unknowns and so much rivalry, it’s hardly surprising that both the Chinese government and its enterprises are keeping their cards close.

What to Expect

As things stand, China will have a strong voice at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is expected to meet to start setting 6G standards around 2024. Indeed, China’s IMT-2030 Study Group compared notes on global visions for 6G at a recent ITU meeting. While the Chinese vision is not drastically different from the ideas in many other regions, how it translates into standards and the technologies to meet them could be somewhat unique.

And if China does take a major role in setting the standards, it will increase the power Beijing wields on the global stage, make China more self-sufficient and have positive commercial consequences for the Chinese companies shaping the architecture.

According to Towson, however, internationally-minded companies such as Huawei and ZTE may make a point of making their technology open source to prove to the world they are not a national security threat. Even so, the 6G arena is unlikely to escape becoming politicised. If China does exert a significant influence, governments may pick and choose which parts of their infrastructure they are comfortable using Chinese technology for.

But just because China and Chinese companies have started early and are spending big, it doesn’t guarantee they will dominate. China has long been excellent at implementation but a little lacking in innovation. “It’s more about having Nobel laureates than 50,000 engineers,” says Towson. “You can spend a lot of money and launch a hundred rock bands, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the Beatles.”

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