One of the foundational promises of 5G is that it will serve as a ubiquitous connectivity medium capable of supporting the digital transformation of global industries ranging from shipping and mining to manufacturing and healthcare. The projected value of 5G-enabled economic activity is counted in trillions of dollars over the next decade. For 5G, or anything else, to achieve ubiquity and provide a 13-figure economic lift, there will have to be a globally coordinated effort of a massive and rapid scale, and doing things with this much scale and velocity is inherently difficult.
Providing a managerial perspective on what he dubbed “blitzscaling,” LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman, now a partner at Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners, told the Harvard Business Review: “We’re in a networked age. And I don’t mean only the internet. Globalization is a form of network. It adds networks of transport, commerce, payment, and information flows around the world. In such an environment, you have to move faster, because competition from anywhere on the globe may beat you to scale.”
While 5G—itself a technological specification collaboratively designed by a wide range of interests from the telecoms and other sectors—doesn’t run the risk of being displaced by a competitive technology, its ability to reach pervasive, global scale could be disrupted through fragmentation. This degree of fragmentation wouldn’t be based solely on competitive technology firms maneuvering for pole position in a rapidly developing market, but fragmentation resulting from dynamic geopolitical machinations, economic protectionism, and a lack of supply chain diversification. These factors and a host of other variables could collectively contribute to 5G not living up to the promise it holds.
As it stands today, Huawei is being blocked by the U.S. government from purchasing American-made components used in its broad portfolio of ICT products. Under the Trump administration, federal officials pressured global allies to undertake similar tactics. Despite this, 2020 was a growth year for the company and, in addition to providing equipment to public 5G network deployments around the world, Huawei is honing its efforts to bring 5G to key global industries such as mining. Huawei Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, speaking with the media in February at the opening ceremony of the Intelligent Mining Innovation Lab in Taiyuan, discussed the interplay between scaling 5G and global economic growth.
“Some U.S. politicians have concerns over the potential impact 5G may have on a global scale. Trade benefits both sides,” he said. “Allowing U.S. companies to supply goods to Chinese customers is conducive to their own financial performance. If Huawei’s production capacity expanded, that would mean U.S. companies could sell more. It’s a win-win situation…We still hope to be able to buy a lot of U.S. components, parts, and machinery so that U.S. companies can also develop with the Chinese economy.”
Huawei’s chief executive also shared a historical perspective, noting that in the mid-18th century, “the U.K. adopted a closed-off policy towards the U.S., which pushed the U.S. to rise as the most powerful country in the world. Today, the U.S. is blocking us…As a business, we don’t have the energy to get involved in a political whirlpool. Our heads are buried in making our own products. Because our products are high quality, some customers around the world will stick with us…We’ll continue serving these customers well by creating more value for them.”
Globalization as a construct has allowed the benefits of technology, whether that’s 5G, steam power or the assembly line, to bring outsize benefits when adopted at a global scale in a coordinated fashion.
As Zhengfei shared what he’d communicate to President Biden—essentially a textbook summarization of the benefits of globalization—he said, “The message is around joint development and shared success.”