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Geopolitics of 5G and the South Caucasus

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The age of 5G internet is coming to the South Caucasus. However, as the US-China geopolitical divide looms ever larger, the region enters the global competition where competing visions for 5G’s deployment could hamper the deployment of the new technologies. As a result, Georgia will edge closer to the US, Armenia – to Russia-China telecoms, while Azerbaijan will try to navigate between the two extremes.

A global competition is unfolding between China and the US. So far it has involved economic struggle and some aspects of naval rivalry. A new dimension needs to be addes – technological competition. This is reflected in the race which is underway to deploy next generation 5G mobile networks. In contrast to 3G and 4G (LTE – Long-Term Evolution), where China was largely relegated to the sidelines in the standards-setting process, now it has been heavily involved in the standards process for 5G—a sign of Beijing’s growing ambitions and global influence. 5G will be both quantitatively and qualitatively different from what has come before. For instance, as opposed to the hardware that drives traditional data networks, 5G networks’ primary functions will be software-based.

5G will be fundamentally different from its predecessor, 4G. Initially, vastly higher speeds will not be noticeable as it is likely that 5G will be used by network operators just to boost capacity on existing 4G networks and ensure a consistent service for customers. Ultimately, the speed capacity you get will be contingent upon the spectrum band the operator runs the 5G technology on and how much your carrier has invested in new masts and transmitters.

5G is also groundbreaking as it will usher in an extensive use of artificial intelligence (AI) to manage the network. Its ramifications are wide range: from military to civil spheres. And China has gained a significant advantage as it successfully moves toward commercial-scale deployment of its domestic 5G network in 2020. Consider the following example, in 2019 China’s Huawei signed an agreement with Russian telecoms on development on 5G networks in Russia.

According to some calculations, a full-scale introduction of 5G networks will take more than a decade. The process will be a complex one and the pace of its deployment across Eurasia and specifically in the South Caucasus will depend on a range of different factors such as carrier preferences, government regulatory policies, public and national security concerns, geopolitical alignments and costs of 5G infrastructure itself.

The development of 5G is taking place at the time as the world is becoming divided along economic and increasingly technological lines. The US builds its own bloc where Chinese technologies will have no major role. The same could be said about China. In this bifurcated world, small and techno-economically vulnerable states, which wish to gain access to the advanced technologies, will face tough choices which 5G network technologies to adopt. Small states across Eurasia are likely to face an increasing pressure from the US and its allies to abstain from using China’s 5G model, while Beijing will cushion its 5G offer in large financial benefits (investments, inclusion into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) etc.). Moreover, for small and relatively poor states Chinese technologies are more affordable than any Western competitors.

This brings us to the South Caucasus, which over the past several years has been gradually transformed into the frontline region between the US and China. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia need 5G to boost their economic performance and relative technological backwardness. 

In Armenia’s case, with its booming IT sector, China’s low cost 5G provides a good opportunity to keep apace in the technologically developing world. Since Viva-MTS, a leading mobile operator in Armenia, belongs to the Russian MTS, which in turn partners with Huawei, Armenia is well placed to become one of the first states in the region to successfully deploy 5G technologies. Indeed, work has already begun, as the head of the department of technological development and resource management of telecommunications management of the Public Services Regulatory Commission of Armenia Armen Hunanyan said in one of his statements. 

Armenia is thus more likely to find itself in the middle of the US-China rivalry compared to Georgia or Azerbaijan. The latter two do not have similar Russian (by extension Chinese) influence in telecommunications. In fact, Baku made an interesting move in December 2019 when Ericsson and Azerbaijani communications service provider Azercell signed a three-year 5G Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the joint deployment of 5G projects. As a reminder, Ericsson is one of four companies in the world possessing enough technological prowess to supply the components necessary for building a 5G network. It is notable that US companies are absent from this hi-tech race.

For Georgia 5G will provide a much faster data download and upload speeds as well as much wider coverage from across the globe. With a chance of reaching 1Gbps, as opposed to presently provided 45Mbps, internet operations speed will be about 10-20 times faster. It could also help the country correct its overall technological underdevelopment in the provinces. The Georgian National Communications Commission announced that the introduction of 5G internet in Georgia will begin in 2020, but the pandemic and a general economic slowdown might change the deployment schedule. All in all, presently the telecom company Magti is arguably best poised to become a leader in the emerging industry.

Georgia also hopes that 5G technologies be applied to boost the country’s defence and security capabilities, especially in the light of the ongoing military troubles with Russia. Faster information flow will be crucial for developing more efficient defence capabilities along occupation lines near Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region, where Tbilisi faces creeping occupation of lands and an endless string of kidnappings. However, the deployment of 5G might also bear risks as militarily developed states will be better positioned to use the 5G technologies to collect sensitive security and defence information from Georgia’s vital state sectors. On that front, deeper cooperation with US security services and the military sector will be crucial. However, there is a much larger problem Georgia, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan, could face due to the deployment of China-produced 5G. As the US-China divide grows and Washington is increasingly worried that Beijing might use this superiority for military and economic purposes incompatible with Western security practices, US pressure on South Caucasus states is likely to ramp up. Georgia will be under particular scrutiny as it positions itself as an ally of the US in the region and simultaneously seeks closer economic relations with China. In the long run Tbilisi may face the dilemma of having to choose between Washington’s support and the use of China’s technological advancements. 

With Armenia and Azerbaijan, it will be different to a varying degree. Security-wise Armenia is more related to Russia and its telecoms, Azerbaijan not so much. Moreover, as both are not openly aspiring to join Western political or military organizations, harsh US pressure on Yerevan and Baku might be less expected than in the case of Georgia. Still, a certain push from the US for a China-free 5G alternative will follow. It could hamper 5G deployment in the South Caucasus, the development which would once again indicate how global geopolitics is shaping the timing and level of the use of China’s or China-free 5G technologies.

Author’s note: first published in Caucasus Watch

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Science & Technology

Iran among five pioneers of nanotechnology

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Prioritizing nanotechnology in Iran has led to this country’s steady placement among the five pioneers of the nanotechnology field in recent years, and approximately 20 percent of all articles provided by Iranian researchers in 2020 are relative to this area of technology.

Iran has been introduced as the 4th leading country in the world in the field of nanotechnology, publishing 11,546 scientific articles in 2020.

The country held a 6 percent share of the world’s total nanotechnology articles, according to StatNano’s monthly evaluation accomplished in WoS databases.

There are 227 companies in Iran registered in the WoS databases, manufacturing 419 products, mainly in the fields of construction, textile, medicine, home appliances, automotive, and food.

According to the data, 31 Iranian universities and research centers published more than 50 nano-articles in the last year. 

In line with China’s trend in the past few years, this country is placed in the first stage with 78,000 nano-articles (more than 40 percent of all nano-articles in 2020), and the U.S. is at the next stage with 24,425 papers. These countries have published nearly half of the whole world’s nano-articles.

In the following, India with 9 percent, Iran with 6 percent, and South Korea and Germany with 5 percent are the other head publishers, respectively.

Almost 9 percent of the whole scientific publications of 2020, indexed in the Web of Science database, have been relevant to nanotechnology.

There have been 191,304 nano-articles indexed in WoS that had to have a 9 percent growth compared to last year. The mentioned articles are 8.8 percent of the whole produced papers in 2020.

Iran ranked 43rd among the 100 most vibrant clusters of science and technology (S&T) worldwide for the third consecutive year, according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2020 report.

The country experienced a three-level improvement compared to 2019.

Iran’s share of the world’s top scientific articles is 3 percent, Gholam Hossein Rahimi She’erbaf, the deputy science minister, has announced.

The country’s share in the whole publications worldwide is 2 percent, he noted, highlighting, for the first three consecutive years, Iran has been ranked first in terms of quantity and quality of articles among Islamic countries.

Sourena Sattari, vice president for science and technology has said that Iran is playing the leading role in the region in the fields of fintech, ICT, stem cell, aerospace, and is unrivaled in artificial intelligence.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Science & Technology

Free And Equal Internet Access As A Human Right

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Having internet access in a free and equal way is very important in contemporary world. Today, there are more than 4 billion people who are using internet all around the world. Internet has become a very important medium by which the right to freedom of speech and the right to reach information can be exercised. Internet has a central tool in commerce, education and culture.

Providing solutions to develop effective policies for both internet safety and equal Internet access must be the first priority of governments. The Internet offers individuals power to seek and impart information thus states and organizations like UN have important roles in promoting and protecting Internet safety. States and international organizations play a key role to ensure free and equal Internet access.

The concept of “network neutrality is significant while analyzing equal access to Internet and state policies regulating it. Network Neutrality (NN) can be defined as the rule meaning all electronic communications and platforms should be exercised in a non-discriminatory way regardless of their type, content or origin. The importance of NN has been evident in COVID-19 pandemic when millions of students in underdeveloped regions got victimized due to the lack of access to online education.

 Article 19/2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes the following:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Internet access and network neutrality directly affect human rights. The lack of NN undermines human rights and causes basic human right violations like violating freedom of speech and freedom to reach information. There must be effective policies to pursue NN. Both nation-states and international organizations have important roles in making Internet free, safe and equally reachable for the people worldwide. States should take steps for promoting equal opportunities, including gender equality, in the design and implementation of information and technology. The governments should create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling online environment in accordance with human rights.

It is known that, the whole world has a reliance on internet that makes it easy to fullfill basic civil tasks but this is also threatened by increasing personal and societal cyber security threats. In this regard, states must fulfill their commitment to develop effective policies to attain universal access to the Internet in a safe way.

 As final remarks, it can be said that, Internet access should be free and equal for everyone. Creating effective tools to attain universal access to the Internet cannot be done only by states themselves. Actors like UN and EU have a major role in this process as well.

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Future Energy Systems Need Clear AI Boundaries

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Today, almost 60% of people worldwide have access to the Internet via an ever-increasing number of electronic devices. And as Internet usage grows, so does data generation.

Data keeps growing at unprecedented rates, increasingly exceeding the abilities of any human being to analyse it and discover its underlying structures.

Yet data is knowledge. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. Today’s high-speed computing systems can “learn” from experience and, thus, effectively replicate human decision-making.

Besides holding its own among global chess champions, AI aids in converting unstructured data into actionable knowledge. At the same time, it enables the creation of even more insightful AI – a win-win for all. However, this doesn’t happen without challenges along the way.

Commercial uses of AI have expanded steadily in recent years across finance, healthcare, education and other sectors. Now, with COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, many countries have turned to innovative technologies to halt the spread of the virus.

The pandemic, therefore, has further accelerated the global AI expansion trend.

Energy systems need AI, too.

Rapidly evolving smart technology is helping to make power generation and distribution more efficient and sustainable. AI and the Big Data that drives it have become an absolute necessity.  Beyond just facilitating and optimising, these are now the basic tools for fast, smart decision making.

With the accelerating shift to renewable power sources, AI can help to reduce operating costs and boost efficiency. Crucially, AI-driven “smart grids” can manage variable supply, helping to maximise the use of solar and wind power.

Read more in IRENA’s Innovation Toolbox.

Risks must be managed to maximise the benefits.

AI usage in the energy sector faces expertise-related and financial constraints.

Decision makers, lacking specialised knowledge, struggle to appreciate the wide-ranging benefits of smart system management. In this respect, energy leaders have proven more conservative than those in other sectors, such as healthcare.

Meanwhile, installing powerful AI tools without prior experience brings considerable risks. Data loss, poor customisation, system failures, unauthorised access – all these errors can bring enormous costs.

Yet like it or not, interconnected devices are on the rise.

What does this all mean for the average consumer?

Smart phones, smart meters and smart plugs, connected thermostats, boilers and smart charging stations have become familiar, everyday items. Together, such devices can form the modern “smart home”, ideally powered by rooftop solar panels.

AI can help all of us, the world’s energy consumers, become prosumers, producing and storing our own energy and interacting actively with the wider market. Our data-driven devices, in turn, will spawn more data, which helps to scale up renewables and maximise system efficiency.

But home data collection raises privacy concerns. Consumers must be clearly informed about how their data is used, and by whom. Data security must be guaranteed. Consumer privacy regulations must be defined and followed, with cybersecurity protocols in place to prevent data theft.

Is the future of AI applications in energy bright?

Indeed, the outlook is glowing, but only if policy makers and societies strike the right balance between innovation and risk to ensure a healthy, smart and sustainable future.

Much about AI remains to be learned. As its use inevitably expands in the energy sector, it cannot be allowed to work for the benefit of only a few. Clear strategies need to be put in place to manage the AI use for the good of all.

IRENA

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