Lena Li had high hopes when she arrived in Australia from China to study telecommunications engineering.
Her impression was that Australia, where wi-fi was invented, was an “advanced” country at the cutting edge of technology.
But it wasn’t what she expected.
“When I video call my parents on WeChat, it would say that the quality of the internet is not good on the screen, and then on my mum’s end, it would say the other party’s internet connection is poor,” the 25-year-old graduate told the ABC’s China Tonight.
While Australia’s 5G mobile network rollout is still in its infancy, China has announced its 6G will be ready for commercial use in nine years, according to an industry white paper released earlier this month.
Ms Li wanted to work for Chinese telecommunication giant Huawei in Australia, but it was banned from supplying Australia’s 5G equipment over national security concerns.
Now the company is reportedly sending two satellites next month to test its potential 6G technology.
But traditional technological superpowers, like the United States, are reclaiming lost ground by passing new laws and pouring record money into scientific research to try and stave off China’s tech challenge.
While 6G is still largely theoretical — and at least a decade away — the race for next-gen wireless technology dominance is heating up.
What’s 6G? How is it different from 5G?
6G refers to the sixth generation of wireless mobile connectivity.
Mobile network standards work in roughly decade cycles — from 1G in 1980 to 5G in 2020 — so 6G is expected to be deployed in the 2030s, promising up to 100 times faster internet speeds than its predecessor.
Communications expert Professor Branka Vucetic, director of the Centre for IoT (Internet of Things) and Telecommunications at the University of Sydney, has been at the forefront of Australia’s 5G and 6G research and development.
She told the ABC that 6G would deliver some of the unfulfilled promises of 5G, with higher reliability and low cost.
“6G would be the main enabler of some new services, for example, integration of human brains with computers … robots helping us at home, looking after the sick people or ageing population.
“Self-driving cars will be common by the 2030s and they will be connected by 6G networks.”
What do we know about China’s 6G so far?
China began its 6G research back in 2018, the same year as the US, and 6G has been included as a priority in China’s latest five-year plan.
The government says 6G technology will be used for smart city construction, disaster prevention and environmental protection.
Professor Greg Austin is the head of the Cyber, Space and Future Warfare Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore and an academic at the UNSW Institute for Cyber Security.
He told the ABC that although there’s little information about what stage China is up to in its 6G development, there are potential uses in military and intelligence.
“China’s public domain discussions of 6G are really around the potential benefit to society in general, to general human advance and human progress,” he said.
“It’s a bit too soon to be identifying, in a sense, the specific military-related or intelligence-related applications of 6G.”
Why is Beijing so keen on promoting 6G?
In April, the state-run tabloid Global Times reported that the Chinese telco giant Huawei is set to launch two satellites in July “with aims including the verification of the 6G network technologies”.
Huawei did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment.
In November last year, Chinese media falsely reported that China has successfully launched “the world’s first 6G satellite” into orbit, which raised a few eyebrows — even within the country.
Professor Austin said reports like these are “typical Chinese propaganda”, and that according to the specialists he’s consulted, “there is no such thing as a 6G satellite right now”.
Rather, China has launched experimental satellites which can conduct tests related to the possible evolution of 6G, he said.
“But to say that China leads in 6G technology today would be a gross exaggeration.
“What China is all about, is to convince its own citizens and the rest of the world that it’s actually doing very well in the technology competition with the United States and its allies.”
Will Huawei face a 6G ban in the future?
Huawei has been banned by the US and its allies, including Australia, over cyber security concerns such as espionage activities for the Chinese government and stealing intellectual property from foreign technology companies.
Huawei has repeatedly denied the allegations.
According to the Nine newspapers, earlier this year Huawei urged the Australian government to engage in 6G talks with the company to avoid a repeat of the ban on its equipment in 5G mobile networks.
John Lee, a senior analyst from Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, said while the US’s efforts to undermine Huawei’s market dominance have been effective, it’d still be hard to untangle a global telco industry that has been integrated with Chinese firms over the past two decades.
“In my opinion, it’s unlikely that the world will split cleanly into US-led and China-led technology spheres, since most countries don’t see their interests best served by aligning decisively with either Washington or Beijing,” he said.
But the suspicion of Chinese cyber influence is likely to linger on with 6G, triggered by a track record of “penetrating Western systems to steal information” and repression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, according to Professor Austin.
“The position taken by some international intelligence agencies was, if we can’t keep them out of even these basic systems, let’s not take the risk with 5G, because it’s going to be quite sensitive for certain national infrastructure and security purposes,” he said.
Professor Austin said while tech tensions between China and the US were intensifying, with the Biden administration likely to continue policies to sanction Chinese tech companies, there is room for a more nuanced approach.
“Especially in respect of Huawei, there are many aspects of the way that policy was implemented which were really driven more by hysteria than by the actual risk,” he said.
Will China win the 6G race?
According to the National Intellectual Property Administration, China accounted for 35 per cent of the global 6G-related patent applications, followed by the US with 18 per cent.
Earlier this month, the US Senate passed a sweeping new bill for more research and innovation funding of $US250 billion ($323 billion).
In April, the US and Japan announced a joint investment of US$4.5 billion ($5.8 billion) for the research, development and testing of 6G.
“The Chinese government is locked in a battle for technological supremacy with the United States for all sorts of strategic political and military purposes,” Professor Austin said.
“So we really can’t separate Chinese interest in 6G as being any different from Chinese interest in artificial intelligence or space travel or even undersea exploration.”
Professor Vucetic said China was currently leading the way in 5G, and there was significant investment from smartphone manufacturers, telcos and the Chinese government in 6G.
“The strategic importance of 5G has been overlooked in the past by the Western countries,” she said.
The Next G Alliance, a US-led coalition including tech giants like Apple, Google and AT&T, was formed in October last year to “advance North American leadership in 6G”.
Wireless network and smartphone manufacturers in South Korea and Europe have also joined the 6G race by launching large-scale research and development projects.
“If China is prepared to invest at levels that the United States and other countries do not invest, then we might see China take quite a lead in 6G technologies by the time we get to 2025 or 2030,” Professor Austin said.
“But more importantly, humanity will win from 6G technology, there will be important new breakthroughs.”
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