Security vs technological progress Russia

(Kārlis Dambrāns, CC BY 2.0)

In a surprising move Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to grant the frequencies widely used for 5G networks to domestic telecommunication networks operators and decided to reserve these frequencies for the military and intelligence services.

Although the Russian government has already found an alternative frequency range for the deployment of 5G networks in the country, the problem is that almost no one else in the world uses those frequencies. This could potentially slow down the introduction of 5G network in Russia for anywhere between 2 to 5 years, according to The Bell.

One of the aims of 5G is to offer mobile and fixed internet access at broadband speeds of 10Gbps, which is about a hundred times faster than the current technology allows. Such speed is necessary for transporting large volumes of data needed for the deployment of Internet of Things (IoT), an extension of internet connectivity into physical devices and everyday objects. It is widely believed that the introduction of 5G technologies represents a new era of digital economy.

The information about Mr. Putin’s decision, cited by the Russian business daily Vedomosti, came from anonymous sources in relevant departments of the Russian government and telecommunications companies.

The range of frequencies 4.4-4.99 GHz, which was proposed as an alternative for 5G networks deployment by the Russian government, is very close to the widely used 3.4-3.8 GHz in terms of technical specifications. However, the main problem with those frequencies is that in general there is no equipment for them.

According a representative of one of Russia’s major telecommunications operators, Megafon, cited by Vedomosti, technologies harmonized with those frequencies will only become available on mass scale in 5 to 7 years. This could mean that, if the Russian government stands by its decision, Russia could end up seriously lagging behind the rest of the world in the deployment of the 5G networks.

Security first

The Security Council of the Russian Federation sent a letter stating its position on the assignment of frequencies for 5G networks to the government already in June this year. In the letter, it stressed that the frequency range 3.4-3.8 GHz is used by the security services and that their transfer to civilian operators could pose a security risk to the country.

Asked by the Russian daily RBC about the position of the Security Council, a representative of the Russian Ministry of Communications noted that the 3.4-3.8 GHz band is the key to the development of 5G networks around the world. “Without the use of those frequencies, Russia’s falling behind in 5G is inevitable. Unfortunately, there is currently no company in Russia able to produce 5G equipment,” he said, adding that “in 3 to 5 years there might be one, but that’s a bit too late. By that time, 5G networks will be deployed even in the least developed countries of tropical Africa.”

The Kremlin refused to comment on its decision, saying it was “official correspondence.”

Influential Russian agency, state-owned Tass, cited an anonymous source from one of Russia’s top four telecom providers, who called the reporting on Mr. Putin’s decision regarding the frequencies “fake news.” “This is Putin’s reaction to the Security Council’s April letter. Things have changed dramatically in favor of 3.4GHz-3.8 GHz since then. Operators and the Communications Ministry are currently rewriting the 5G development concept with a view toward 3.4-3.8 GHz,” the source said.

Russia’s ambitious internet development plans

According to the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) report published last year, by the year 2025, up to 80 per cent of Russia’s population will have access to the internet via the 5th generation of the wireless network.

Russia is already at the forefront of mobile technology adoption in another sense — it has the highest mobile penetration out of the 10 largest countries by population. In 2017, the amount of unique mobile subscribers as a percentage of population reached almost 90 per cent in Russia, leaving the United States and China in the second and third place, respectively.

Russian mobile network operators plan to launch 5G commercial network services in 2020. “The speed with which Russian mobile users will transfer to 5G will largely depend on building the networks and the cooperation of mobile network operators with one another,” Russia’s Rostelekom’s representative said to Kommersant.

Already in April 2018, Russia’s VimpelCom (a brand of the mobile network operator Beeline), together with the Chinese Huawei held a joint presentation showing the most recent communication technologies supported by the 5G. The two communications companies demonstrated a smooth interaction between two speakers using a hologram — a digitalized image transmitted through Mixed Reality glasses (MR).

Whether Russia will actually become one of the early adopters of the 5G technology is now in hands of the Russian government. If it decides to go ahead with the plan to keep the 3.4-3.8 MGh frequencies reserved exclusively for the security community, Russia may end up seriously lagging behind the rest of the world in transforming its economy into a real digital one.  

Filip Brokeš is an analyst and a journalist specializing in international relations.

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