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JM | Oct 25, 2020

Jamaica between a rock and a hard place in pursuit of 5G

/ Our Today

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Durrant Pate

Photo: Scientific American

Since interviewing America’s Ambassador to Jamaica, Donald Tapia and his team, I now realise that Jamaica is between a rock and a hard place in its bid to roll out fifth generation (5G) mobile technology in the island.  

Ambassador Tapia has made it patently clear that either Jamaica faces dire consequences if it exercises the option of going with the Chinese version of 5G or play it safe and side with the American’s 5G.

5G is the latest in mobile and digital technology, which enables a new kind of network that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything together including machines, objects, and devices. 5G is the superfast cellular networks that promise to be the foundation for tomorrow’s technologies.

Photo: Picture Alliance/DPA

The Chinese have the cheapest 5G architecture with their technology companies Huawei and ZTE dominating the 5G space at the expense of their American and European counterparts. However, their 5G architecture, according to the Americans, is very suspect and opens up to data protection concerns.

These two Chinese companies dominate the market in 5G equipment and the concerns are that equipment made by them could allow Beijing to siphon off sensitive personal or corporate data. The Americans fear that the mere threat of this activity would endow China’s leadership with geopolitical leverage at all times.

Ambassador Tapia made known that Jamaica’s financial system could suffer the hardest if the Holness government opts to go the route of Chinese 5G technology. He declared that Jamaica financial sector faces serious dislocation. 

Jamaica looking down the barrel

It gets worse for Jamaica when the American diplomat implied that the island’s financial sector could be grounded to a halt. Continuing, he remarked, “that’s the consequence that you are looking at long term. That’s major!” 

Donald Tapia, United States Ambassador to Jamaica (Photo: Youtube)

But how does a small developing state like Jamaica, with all its associated problems, wiggle out of such a conundrum when pit between the world’s two super powers. From the Ambassador’s pronouncement, it seems clear to quiet diplomacy won’t work on this one and these seem to be no middle ground. 

Well there might be but it is unknown if this will be acceptable to the Americans. Europeans and Korea do offer an alternative to China’s 5G. With technology companies such as Ericsson out of Sweden, Nokia out of Finland and Samsung out of South Korea do offering 5G technologies, they sometimes do utilise components made or distributed by Huawei and ZTE.

“You (Government of Jamaica) either have to look to the East to the two-headed dragon or you’re gonna have to look to the North. It’s a decision your government will have to make.” 

Donald Tapia, United States Ambassador to Jamaica

Tapia declared the US hand as it regards any single component from any Chinese firms being used to build Jamaica’s 5G architecture is unacceptable. So for me the message is clear it’s either we go full American 5G or go home and face the consequences. 

This message could be no clearer when Tapia declared in a subtle tone, “You (Government of Jamaica) either have to look to the East to the two-headed dragon or you gonna have to look to the North. It’s a decision your government will have to make.” 

5G geo-political hustling

For me this tussle between American 5G and Chinese 5G is a continuation of the geopolitical jostling between Washington and Beijing. While there may be merit in America’s concerns over the security or for that matter insecurity of data on Chinese 5G technology, a willingness to reconcile would solve the problem.

China seeking to sell Huawei is at least a first step given one of America’s concerns is that, based on the current ownership structure, the company is effectively owned by the Government of China. More needs to be done, yes, considering the threat by Huawei’s efforts to monopolise the 5G market thus eliminating competition and controlling supply chains.

It is quite sad that Jamaica has been placed in this position but it is inevitable that the country must transcend its 3G and 4G network and move into the future like most other countries in going 5G. Already, Jamaica is far advancing its regulatory and monitoring regime for the proliferation of 5G mobile technology services in the island.  

Jamaica’s regulator of mobile technology, the Spectrum Management Authority (SMA), is laying the groundwork for the onset of 5G services locally. The SMA is now researching and putting in place new monitoring tools available for 5G technologies given the need for additional monitoring tools and adjustment to its monitoring techniques.

So for Jamaica its ready, set, go in its foray in 5G but hold on America could “colt the game”.


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