COMMENTARY: World's First Remote Brain Surgery Shows China's Lead in 5G

Lightning-fast technology, set to go into wide commercial use in 2020, is revolutionizing consumer and industrial processes with near-instant connectivity.

Mark Melnicoe
    Mar 23, 2019 5:35 AM  PT
COMMENTARY: World's First Remote Brain Surgery Shows China's Lead in 5G
author: Mark Melnicoe   

When news emerged this week that a Chinese surgeon conducted the world's first remote surgery using 5G, it served as a powerful reminder that China is using its own innovation to take the lead in this crucial technology.

A patient with Parkinson's disease received a deep brain stimulation implant in Beijing while the surgeon operated from the city of Sanya, in Hainan province in China's south – some 1,800 miles away. The surgeon, Ling Zhipei, received help from China Mobile and Huawei 5G technology to carry out the operation last Saturday.

"The 5G network has solved problems like video lag and remote-control delay experienced under the 4G network, ensuring a nearly real-time operation," Ling told China's national broadcaster CGTV. "And you barely feel that the patient is 3,000 kilometers away."

The news comes as something of a shock, because the commercial rollout of 5G in both China and the U.S. is not expected until 2020. And while there's lots of talk about super-fast data transfers facilitating things like autonomous vehicles and remote surgery, few thought such an event would occur so quickly.

What does this say about the contest between China and the U.S. to build a global system for 5G? The symbolism is undeniable, but the implications are much greater.

A Lightning-fast, but Unknown, Future

While smart cars and remote surgery are important, 5G will enable all kinds of electronic applications that we haven't even thought of yet. If 3G helped spawn the mobile web and 4G catalyzed streaming audio and video and the social media explosion, 5G is going to take us to a world where everyone and everything is connected.

Think doctors being connected to their patients, cars connected to smart highways and consumer and industrial devices connected to each other, enabling fully automated factories. The applications are almost endless, and companies of all stripes will take advantage, with artificial intelligence a big part of the equation.

As China has taken the lead in 5G, the stock prices of some of the best-positioned firms have exploded this year. Bloomberg noted last month how Comba Telecom Systems Holdings Ltd.'s (HKEX: 2342) price had surged 79 percent to its highest level since 2014 while China Tower Corp. (OTC PINK: CHWRF) was up 42 percent since its IPO.

Some of these stocks have since fallen back somewhat but remain sharply higher since Jan. 1. China Communications Services Corp. (HKEX: 0552) is up 20 percent this year. Shares in fiber optic suppliers such as Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable Joint Stock (HKEX: 6869) also has jumped, helping drive China's strongest-in-the-world stock market this year.

One can only imagine the applications that China's global companies such as Alibaba and Tencent Holdings will come up with to take advantage of 5G.

Global Corporate Race

The ball started rolling faster in December, when China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology awarded 5G spectrum licenses to China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom – the nation's three telecom operators. This gave them the green light to conduct their final trials before widespread commercial rollout next year.

In the U.S., Verizon (NYSE: VZ) has been the most aggressive of the telecoms on 5G in the early stages. AT&T (NYSE: T) is in a more complex situation in part because of its recent acquisition of Time Warner – an $85 billion behemoth of a merger that waters it down as a 5G play.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) and Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) make many of the chips and other equipment that will power 5G phones as they emerge in the U.S. market later this year.

As 5G progresses with its possibilities increasingly realized, companies that benefit will run the gamut – from Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL), the world's first trillion-dollar company, to tiny start-ups not yet devised in garages from Silicon Valley to Shanghai.

But make no mistake – the lead China has taken has many people in the U.S. concerned. One is Seth Cropsey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Global Security Race

"If China wins this race, it will have economic, technological, political and military advantages," Cropsey wrote Wednesday in an opinion piece for The Hill, a Washington-based news portal.

He cited the creation of tens of thousands of jobs and wealth from the development, testing and sale of revolutionary technology and "bragging rights" on the international level, which he says would constitute "a propaganda injury that will harm all American exports for years."

Cropsey, whose military background includes serving as deputy undersecretary of the Navy in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, also worries about security.

"From the outset," he says, China could use "enhanced surveillance and state control that extends the range of (its) ability to deny U.S. forces access to the Western Pacific while tightening and prolonging domestic controls in China — and, eventually, worldwide."

One thing all can agree on: 5G is a can't-miss technology about to change the world, and the stakes over who wins the global race will carry myriad implications, some of which cannot be foreseen.

That Parkinson's patient back in Beijing? He is reported to be feeling fine.