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Explainer: 5G networks, the United Kingdom, and China

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February 3, 2020

It seems that everything about our lives is tied in some way to the internet and technology. Without these tools, our economy would be stifled, our national security would be weakened, and our communication with families and friends would be hampered. The internet drives so much of our lives.

Gone are the days of 14.4 and 28.8 kbit/s dial up internet of my youth. Our modern technologies have increasingly become dependent on mobile networks with blazing speeds. As our communities become more and more connected, we will need faster networks to power our current devices and those yet to come. 

Enter 5G networks. This technology has the potential to revolutionize everything about our lives, yet most of us know little to nothing about it.

What is a 5G network?

5G is a term used to categorize the 5th generation of wireless networks. 1G networks were designed for analog phone calls. 2G networks introduced digital voice communication. 3G was popularized around the introduction of smartphones like the iPhone 3G among others, which required the networks to carry data at speeds in order to power features like mobile web browsing and applications. 4G is the current standard for most cellular phones, including gigabit internet speeds often seen as 4G LTE service on your phone.

But with the rise of more complex devices and richer connectivity, 5G networks are beginning to be deployed around the world. As described by PC Magazine, 5G networks include “bigger channels (to speed up data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).” 

There are three levels of 5G networks: low-band (which some U.S. carriers currently use), mid-band (up to 10 GHz), and high-band or millimeter-wave (20-100 GHz). High-band applications are very new, extremely fast, but have low distance.

Many current smart phones still run on 4G LTE networks in the U.S., with some able to use low- to mid-band 5G. It is expected that most cell phones debuting in 2020 will deploy all band 5G capabilities. 5G networks will be needed in order to support many future technologies such as the possibility of widespread deployment of driverless cars, surveillance tools, communication platforms, entertainment choices, drones, and continued automation through the use of robots and artificial intelligence.

Why is 5G so controversial?

Most of the news headlines that mention 5G networks focus on international relations and the race to 5G supremacy. China has an outsized influence in the discussions surrounding 5G because they have been able to broadly deploy 5G capable phones before the U.S.and other countries, with companies like Huawei taking the lead in building the necessary infrastructure and software.

The U.S. and China are locked in an intense technology race to become the predominant supplier of 5G networks worldwide, which has ramifications on issues such as national security and other technological innovations. These networks won’t just carry cat videos or the latest Netflix series, but also sensitive or classified information around the world between allies that needs to be kept in the right hands.

Christians stand for the vulnerable, oppressed, and voiceless wherever they happen to live because our God is a God of justice (Isaiah 1:17).

Just last week, Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, announced that they would strike a deal with the Chinese technology giant, Huawei, to build out the outer core of their coming 5G network. This was a surprising announcement given the pressure that the Trump administration has put on English leaders to ban Huawei, citing immense cyber security concerns with Huawei and the nature of the close relationship between the Chinese state and the company.

It is no secret that the U.S. and China are in a tight race for technological dominance and function differently in terms of the role of government in the free market. The Chinese party, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has sought to use whatever means necessary to supercharge the Chinese market and industries. These subsidies and enlarged authority over private companies are a concern to many in the West because the Communist Party will exploit this public/private partnership at any time to ensure continued dominance over its own people and those throughout the world.

From the “Great Firewall of China,” which essentially has created a separate Chinese internet and blocks access to any Western influences, to the dangerously close relationship with Huawei and the potential privacy concerns for the world community, Chinese leadership knows that to maintain its edge in technological development they must stay ahead of the curve and help their companies grow. 

With Huawei’s growth worldwide in the rollout of 5G networks, many security experts warn that data will be compromised and accessed by the Chinese state at will. As national security expert and ERLC Research Fellow Klon Kitchen told the Washington Examiner, “The U.S. intelligence community will now (have to) make a determination on how this impacts intel sharing . . . But, to be sure, the British decision on Huawei fundamentally alters the relationship (between the US and the UK), and it hurts everyone's security.”

Why does this matter to Christians?

Much of the talk around 5G network build-out and deployment focuses on who is building the infrastructure and how it will be used. There are competing understandings of government and fundamental disagreements on the nature of human rights, as seen in the battle between Western democracies and authoritarian states such as China, Russia, and Iran. 

China already deploys many dehumanizing uses of technology in their own country, including their use of facial recognition in major cities as well as their systematic profiling and detainment of minority faith groups such as the Uhigur Muslims. Christians are rightfully concerned about the growing power that the Chinese Communist Party has over the Chinese people and the ways that they use their control to violate basic human dignity and rights. The Chinese have proven time and time again that they will stop at nothing to secure power and control for themselves as they seek to erode the dignity of anyone in their path.

We must confront these abuses of power and call for a recognition of basic human rights in China and across the world. All people are created in God’s image and that image is the basis for Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). Loving our neighbor in this context means standing up for their rights and seeking to suppress the spread of this authoritarian regime’s power in each of our daily lives. Christians stand for the vulnerable, oppressed, and voiceless wherever they happen to live because our God is a God of justice (Isaiah 1:17).

Left unchecked and unchallenged on the world scene, China’s government will continue to abuse these emerging technologies to dominate their citizens. The stakes are just too high for us to sit by idly. In a world where sensitive information and data is shared at lightning speeds on these digital networks, we must combat these authoritarian power grabs and stand up against injustice wherever it is found. Knowing the power these technologies hold for our societies and the risks involved in seemingly innocuous economic decisions—like those of the U.K.—is half the battle in defending the dignity of our neighbor across the street, and even across the pond.

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as chair of research in technology ethics and creative director at ERLC. In his role as creative director, he oversees the communications team, including all creative design projects.  His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is a graduate … Read More