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“It’s Complicated.”   Reckoning with the Unique Material Inputs of the 5G Rollout

As diplomatic and trade relations between the United States and China continue to deteriorate against the backdrop of the current coronavirus pandemic, the buildout of 5G technology is quickly becoming the new frontier in the tech war between the two global players. 

5G is considered vital not only for 21st century telecommunications but also self-driving cars, the Internet of Things, and next-Gen manufacturing (i.e. automation and effective tracking of movement of inventory and production lines).  

In an effort to boost the U.S. position in this confrontation, after an unprecedentedly fast interagency review, the White House earlier this week announced a massive transfer of prized mid-band electromagnetic spectrum from military use to commercial 5G. The move, which would be the “fastest transfer of federal spectrum to commercial use in history” would, according to U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios “dramatically expand 5G access for all Americans” without compromising military readiness or operations.

Without going into the technical details — the complex nature of which can arguably make your head spin — the availability of appropriate consumer mid band 5G frequencies is one of the key prerequisites for a successful rollout of the technology. 

The other prerequisite lies in the technology’s unique material inputs — and this, unfortunately, is an area that has been neglected in both the recently-released White House National Strategy to Secure 5G, and the Biden presidential campaign’s statements on the issue.

Writes ARPN’s Daniel McGroarty in a recent piece for The Economic Standard:

“What neither plan does in any detail is reckon with the unique material inputs required for the U.S. to begin its own 5G buildout. Here, as in its blinding speeds, 5G is like no network that’s come before.

In a world where we’ve become used to invisible networks – wireless communication, data floating in The Cloud – 5G is a singularly ‘physical’ system. As industry executive Brian Lavallee notes, ‘It’s rather ironic that the projected performance goals of 5G wireless will depend on the availability of wireline fiber. (…)

And that’s the problem. All that fiber wireline is EDFL – Erbium-Doped Fiber Laser– requiring one of the rarest of rare earths. With the U.S. currently 100% import-dependent for the rare earths, where does the world get its Erbium? From China.”

And it’s not just Erbium and other heavy rare earths, there’s also Cesium.  Explains OilPrice.com’s Lynsay Birdall:

For the most part, the average person only has a cursory understanding of what 5G means, and how it could transform the global balance of power. But 5G without cesium doesn’t work. The new 5G cellular wireless tech will transfer data and the correct time faster than ever before–fast enough and accurately enough to transform industries. 

In other words, 5G technology will rule the world because it can create a continuous, real-time connection for every single device that exists and every single device that will be made because of it. For digital healthcare, it will forge advancements in real-time connections for the biggest advances in things like pacemakers, among many other things.

Cesium is a critical element in all of this, and it could mean the difference between real-time responsiveness and 5G failure.”

Not surprisingly to followers of ARPN, a quick look at our favorite chart in the 2020 USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries which depicts U.S. net import reliance unveils an all-too familiar scenario.  The chart shows that the U.S. was 100% import reliant for Cesium — with the silver lining being that for many years, America’s main supplier has been a close ally, Canada.

That is, until Canada’s main cesium mine, in Manitoba, was bought by China’s Sinomine in 2019.  As a result, China largely controls global cesium stockpiles.

If the U.S. 5G rollout had to put a label on its relationship status on social media, it would be “It’s Complicated.”

As we previously pointed out, while the “U.S. has deposits rich in the very rare earths needed to build our own 5G, as well as all of the 22 minerals and metals on the U.S. Government’s Critical Mineral List,” for now, China is either main supplier globally, the United States’ leading supplier (or  in some cases, it is both), or controls the stockpiles. 

McGroarty closes with an important reminder: 

“So the next time you read an article that talks about reshoring America’s manufacturing capability or bringing critical supply chains back from China to the U.S., bear in mind that, beyond the rhetoric of decoupling, there’s the hard reality that manufacturing requires ready access to the materials that make things work. It’s one thing to ban Huawei’s 5G, and quite another to build an American alternative – when China controls the minerals and metals it’s made of.”