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A new generation of 5G will change everything from platforms to self-driving cars

The high-speed wireless network will be a critical component in the federal government’s agenda to develop the next level of U.S. innovation.

Mobile phones with 5G were displayed at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.
Josep Lago / AFP /Getty

This week, President Obama will arrive in Pittsburgh to convene the first-ever White House Frontiers Conference. The conference will bring together innovators from across the country to focus on how science and technology is shaping the 21st century, and particularly the role of innovation in building smarter and more inclusive communities. It will be an important discussion, and a timely one, as we are on the cusp of a key technological revolution that will change everyone’s lives in ways we can only dimly envision today.

Back in the 19th and 20th centuries, the railroad, the telegraph and the telephone vastly expanded the scope of commerce and transformed our conceptions of time and space. Now, the next generation of mobile networks holds a similar promise.

In each case, the infrastructure created by these earlier innovations became platforms on which others could build new enterprises and reach new markets. Built on clear standards and protocols (e.g., the gauge of railroad tracks, Morse Code, dial tone and phone numbers), they provided powerful capabilities that could be used by others for their own value-added purposes.

Those who built and operated these platforms did well, but they enabled many others to flourish, as well. As John Hagel from the Deloitte Center for the Edge has noted, successful platforms create rich ecosystems of resources that benefit all participants.

Platforms have emerged as one of the most significant models for internet-based businesses at the heart of our modern digital economy. Apple’s iTunes transformed the way music is distributed, while its App Store is responsible for creating an entire “app economy” that sustains tens of thousands of app developers. Facebook provided a framework that is being used by more than a billion people to share their lives with others and that has become a powerful channel for everything from news to advertising and commerce. Amazon not only sells merchandise directly but has also provided a platform that connects many other sellers to customers.

The growth of wireless broadband networks greatly amplified the reach and impact of platforms like these. The smartphone has become the primary means by which people stay connected, get information and conduct business in their everyday lives. There are currently some three billion smartphones in use globally today, and the number is projected to reach six billion — 70 percent of the world’s population — by 2020. Because these devices are used on the go, people depend on the simplicity, consistency and reliability that established digital platforms can provide.

And now wireless networks are on the brink of becoming exponentially faster, more pervasive and more versatile. The arrival of next-generation 5G-based networks in the next few years will provide what has been described as a uniquely powerful “platform for platforms” and is notably the foundation for the personal, local and national frontiers of innovation the Obama administration seeks to advance.

Offering “perceived infinite capacity,” 5G will provide the basis for the emergence of ubiquitous new wireless platforms that, in turn, will support the creation of an array of new services and businesses.

For example, the speed and responsiveness of 5G networks will be critical for supporting fleets of self-driving vehicles that will depend on getting instantaneous guidance “from the cloud.” The Internet of Things, which will put billions of devices online, will also make use of 5G’s capabilities, as will a rich new world of augmented reality (of which Pokémon Go provides a simple but compelling preview).

Beyond these much-heralded uses, we are likely to see the development of platforms to support everything from wireless payments and remote medical monitoring to the on-demand delivery of education and government services.

And while we may be able to discern the broad contours of this emerging hyper-connected world, it is a safe bet that it will also provide surprises that are the product of imaginative entrepreneurs who know how to leverage the power of platforms.

To realize this 5G future, policymakers at all levels of government and the private sector will need to address unprecedented challenges — some known, some not — that come with laying the technical foundation of this new technology. It will take real work and close cooperation, but the potential value of 5G to society and the economy is too great to delay.

Richard Adler is a noted futurist and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has spent more than two decades tracking key technological, demographic, and economic trends and exploring their implications for companies, organizations and society. Reach him @iftf.

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