Why you should care

With 6,400 planned 5G stations and a strategy to connect all residents with fiber optic broadband by 2020, Yinchuan is the tip of Beijing’s spear in this battle. 

From telecom to tech, this OZY series tells you how 5G speeds and AI could change lives.From critical care to cyber security, 5G data speeds and AI could change lives. OZY's Fifth Generation Intelligence series tells you how.

In the shadow of the thousand-year-old Pagoda of Chengtian Temple, men in orange overalls lay the groundwork for a 5G station. It’s a contrast impossible to ignore in Yinchuan, a city on the windswept outskirts of the Ordos Desert some 31 miles from the most westerly stretch of the Great Wall. Shrouded in ancient culture, historical intrigue and dusty isolation, Yinchuan isn’t an obvious candidate for a futuristic city. But it’s emerging as a laboratory for China’s ambitions to lead the world in 5G technology that promises to transform global telecommunications.

In the past two years, Yinchuan has developed the use of high-definition CCTV capable of facial identification for public-security monitoring, smart street lighting with integrated electric-vehicle charging and advertising, and smart traffic lane management of the city’s highways. The city has trash cans that remotely alert authorities when they need emptying and facial-recognition-enabled payments for public transport. Now, Yinchuan is preparing to take the next leap, turning to 5G on a scale consciously designed to leave the world gaping.

It’s expected to figure in state-owned giant telecom firm China Mobile’s list of pilot cities that will first set up 100 or more 5G stations, being unveiled over 2018 as part of plans to commercialize the network by 2020. At the end of 2017, Yinchuan, in conjunction with China Mobile and China Tower Corp, announced plans to build 6,400 5G base stations in the city. The deal, worth around ¥4 billion (about US$500 million), also includes 3,000 stations supporting Internet of Things communication, a network that will support the city’s growing number of integrated smart systems.

This is part of the Chinese blueprint.

Carl Piva, senior adviser to the Yinchuan government

To support the launch of 5G in Yinchuan, the city is also planning to have 100 percent fiber-optic broadband coverage by 2020, connecting up to 1.25 million users to the high-speed network. The scale of Yinchuan’s 5G plans is unmatched globally, but that’s no coincidence. China, experts say, is racing to lead the world in this coming battle for telecom connectivity. And Yinchuan is the tip of its spear.

“This is part of the Chinese blueprint,” says Carl Piva, a member of the executive team at TM Forum, the international telecom industry association and an accredited senior adviser to the Yinchuan government. Unlike well-established urban centers like Shanghai and Beijing, Yinchuan — barely in the top 85 Chinese cities in terms of population — is a blank canvas, making it an ideal testing ground, and not just for smart technology. “What I find especially intriguing,” says Piva, “is the way they have funded the smart city,” referring to the joint ventures between the city and private telecom firms.

China has a roster of advantages at its disposal that many other countries don’t have, when it comes to utilizing technological advancements, such as 5G, to further smart city projects. Close ties between authorities and tech companies are just one. A combination of low levels of land-use regulation, state ownership of construction companies, access to capital and a strong manufacturing base give China an edge.

“The combination of ease of construction and ready access to hardware has meant that China has been able to experiment with smart cities,” says Peter Young, international partnerships manager at Future Cities Catapult.

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People visit a China Telecom stand displaying 5G technology during the Mobile World Conference in Shanghai on June 27, 2018.

Source AFP/Getty

One area where 5G is expected to particularly make a difference is in the integration of a smart transportation infrastructure, a network built on the ability of multiple elements to interact with each other in real time. “For the implementation of smart transportation, ubiquitous connectivity and automation technology are crucial,” says Bilal Farooq, director of the Laboratory of Innovations in Transportation and an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. Thus, 5G would allow vehicles to communicate with other vehicles and even traffic signals in real time, facilitating remote-driving and pedestrian and cyclist warning, and reducing road accidents.

For sure, Yinchuan’s path toward leading China and the world as a model 5G city faces challenges too. The integration of 5G will not happen overnight. Even once it is up and running, the city will need to find “profitable business models,” says Young. “It remains unclear whether revenue generated for projects will be sufficient to cover ongoing costs, allowing them to be sustainable for the long term.”

But Yinchuan’s residents have already begun to get a taste of what life in a futuristic city could look like. Growing up in Yinchuan, Boyang Xue had to put up with a problem that plagued most Chinese cities: roofless brick buildings that served as often-overflowing “trash stations,” where residents dumped their garbage. That’s something the people of Yinchuan no longer have to deal with. Now, the moment a public bin is full, it sends a signal to municipal authorities and a truck appears with men clad in orange, who take the trash away. That’s how the refuse is collected “pretty much on every street,” says Xue.

The nervous system guiding the city’s vast efforts is a municipal government command center where data flows in nonstop from sensors and CCTV cameras spread across Yinchuan. This data is sieved and sorted, prioritized and then acted upon. It’s an exhibition of China’s growing innovative prowess in the global tech sector.

Equally, it’s a microcosm of China’s attempts to demonstrate what the combination of state support, focus on innovation and a desire to better the U.S. in the race to launch a potentially groundbreaking technology can achieve. Yinchuan has been the quickest off the starting block. Now, it’s looking to build an insurmountable lead for China.

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