IN THE 1990S America’s telecoms industry was split between two rival factions. On one side were the “bellheads”, named after the former telephone monopolist, Bell, and representing firms created by its break-up in the 1980s. They championed “circuit switching”, which linked customers via dedicated connections with highly specialised, highly reliable hardware arranged in a strict hierarchy. They believed in proprietary technology, vertical monopolies and deference to regulators.
Set against them were the “netheads”. They had grown up with the internet, which is based on “packet switching”: information is digitised, cut into small packets, each routed along the best available connection to the destination, and then recombined. Netheads favoured open-source software, collaboration between firms and decentralised decision-making.
This old debate is playing out again, this time in mobile technology—specifically its fifth generation, or 5G. Present-day bellheads are behind America’s assault on Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecoms gear and China’s best shot at dominating the global 5G market. New netheads can be found among proponents of “fully virtualised mobile networks”, built on cheap hardware and controlled by software in a manner similar to computing clouds. They include Rakuten, a Japanese technology group,...
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