On Thursday, the Federal Communication Commission will take a significant step in the evolution of wireless technology. The FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers Order will make available new portions of the spectrum that will lay the foundation for 5G, the next generation of wireless communications, which has significant implications for virtually every American.
The pervasive availability of wireless broadband represents a fundamental "platform for platforms" that is crucial to the growth of the digital economy and the advancement of our society.
For one thing, 5G will enable network providers to keep up with the incredible growth in mobile use. Thirty years ago, almost no one had a mobile phone. Fast-forward to 2015, and there were 111 mobile phone subscriptions in the U.S. for every 100 Americans. Perhaps even more remarkable is that the number of mobile phones in use globally now exceeds the number of people on the planet. And, of course, today these "phones" are being used for much more than making phone calls: Most of us now have smartphones that we use for surfing the web, researching a homework assignment, tracking our health, staying in touch with friends and family or binge-watching our favorite shows.
The growth of wireless digital communications has been astonishing. According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, mobile data traffic has increased 4,000-fold over the past ten years and nearly 400-million-fold over the past 15 years. And this kind of exponential growth is projected to continue for the foreseeable future.
Wireless broadband communication has become, to mix metaphors, the fuel that propels our mobile economy and the glue that keeps us connected with one another. In fact, we are now living in a world that is increasingly dominated by mobile applications. Today, nearly one-third of e-commerce transactions are mobile, almost half of Facebook’s 1.7 billion users are mobile-only, and a majority of Google searches come from mobile devices. Many companies that have developed digital strategies based on the "old" computer-based Internet have had to reinvent their strategies for a "mobile first" world.
And a host of new roles for wireless broadband are emerging: Navigation support for self-driving vehicles, widespread telemedicine services (including remote patient monitoring), ultra-high-definition video and virtual reality and the Internet of Things that will give us smart homes, smart power grids and smart cities.
In a very real sense, the pervasive availability of wireless broadband represents a fundamental "platform for platforms" that is crucial to the growth of the digital economy and the advancement of our society. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler noted recently, "leadership in networks leads to leadership in uses."
Keeping up with demand for wireless
In order to keep up with this explosive growth in demand, network providers have progressed through a series of wireless technology "generations," each of which has been much more capable than the one previous. This progress has been based on three key factors: An increase in the amount of spectrum available for wireless communications, the steady shrinkage in the size of wireless cells, and the use of modulation schemes to allow more users to share a given amount of spectrum.
The current 4G standard was introduced in the U.S. in 2010. It was the first to provide multi-megabit connection speeds essential for advanced mobile applications. But even as 4G continues to evolve, work has begun on the next generation — 5G — that will transcend the limitations of the current standard.
Defining the standard is a multi-year process that may not be completed until 2020, but the broad contours of 5G are becoming increasingly visible.
But what will 5G be exactly? Defining the standard is a multi-year process that may not be completed until 2020, but the broad contours of 5G are becoming increasingly visible: It will provide connection speeds of a gigabit per second or more, and it will have much shorter latency times (delays) than 4G. And it will support much greater amounts of usage: Some proponents of 5G have asserted that it will be capable of providing "perceived infinite capacity."
To achieve these lofty goals, 5G will make use of all three of the strategies mentioned previously: More spectrum, smaller cells and more sophisticated modulation schemes. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of 5G will be its use of so-called millimeter wave (mmW) bands to support applications needing large capacity. As the FCC has noted, these very high frequency spectrum bands have "historically been considered unsuitable for mobile applications … [but recent] technological advances hold promise of unlocking the potential of using mmW bands for mobile uses."
Unlike lower-frequency bands that are the mainstay of existing mobile networks (and will continue to be part of 5G), mmW transmissions are very short-range. While cell towers have typically covered large areas, a mmW cell site may only cover a single room. The result will be an exponential increase in the number of cell sites, including multiple sites within a single building.
The global 5G race is on
A number of standards-setting bodies have launched multi-year efforts to define a 5G standard. In 2012, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency that allocates radio spectrum and develops technical standards globally, embarked on a program to complete the definition of a new standard for 5G by the year 2020.
On July 14, the FCC will initiate a formal rule-making that will make the U.S. the first country in the world to open high-band spectrum for 5G networks and technologies. demonstrating that they are a leading player for 5G.
But even while the standard is being hammered out, efforts are under way around the world to develop and test 5G components. In the U.S., Verizon, Sprint and AT&T have begun testing that will lay the groundwork for 5G, and Verizon announced that it plans to begin limited commercial deployments of 5G in 2017. T-Mobile has said it will also start testing 5G this year. In Japan, NTT DoCoMo is experimenting with the use of mmW spectrum to achieve high transmission speeds, while in the U.K., the University of Surrey, along with multiple corporate partners, has opened a 5G Innovation Centre. In China, the Academy of Telecommunications Research has launched a three-year program of 5G experimentation.
In addition to these R&D efforts, high-profile public demonstrations of 5G networks are being planned for major international sporting events, including the World Cup in Russia, the Commonwealth Games in Australia and the Winter Olympics in South Korea, all in 2018. As one observer has noted, "everyone is rushing to demonstrate that they are a leading player for 5G."
Regulators are also beginning to act. On July 14, the FCC will initiate a formal rule-making that will make the U.S. the first country in the world to open high-band spectrum for 5G networks and technologies. Specifically, the order will make new spectrum bands available for a combination of licensed, unlicensed and shared uses — opening, for example, more than four times as much spectrum for flexible use than the FCC has allocated to date, and making 15 times more unlicensed spectrum available for uses such as Wi-Fi as is currently available in lower bands.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has noted that the U.S. can’t wait for international standards-setting bodies to define 5G if it wants to maintain a leadership position. Rather, as he recently argued, "turning innovators loose is far preferable to expecting committees and regulators to define the future." His strategy as a regulator seems to be to make ample spectrum available for experimentation, and then rely on the private sector to develop and implement the necessary technical standards.
What has to happen to make 5G a reality?
Though the FCC will take the first step to encourage the development of 5G networks, local and state policymakers also have essential roles to play in the deployment of those networks. They will need to ensure that the technological infrastructure for 5G can be implemented by addressing the tricky issue of physical access.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has noted that the U.S. can’t wait for international standards-setting bodies to define 5G if it wants to maintain a leadership position.
While there are currently some 300,000 cell towers operating in the U.S., 5G is likely to involve a vastly larger number of much smaller cells. Since there may well be multiple 5G cells within a single building (or even within a single room) in areas with high demand for service, installing these cells will involve getting permission from not only thousands of municipal governments but potentially from millions of individual landlords. Cooperation among all the parties involved will be essential, but new regulation may be needed to ensure that these gatekeepers don’t become bottlenecks.
One possible precedent that could apply to the siting of 5G points of presence is an FCC rule in effect since 1996 that prohibits either landlords or zoning laws from placing restrictions on the installation of antennas for satellite, broadband radio or broadcast TV service for personal use. Another approach could be for the FCC to extend its "shot clock" rule that sets a time limit on local cell tower siting decisions.
Making 5G a reality will involve many other policy issues, some new and some familiar. Making the process more complicated is the fact that, unlike the previous generations of wireless standards, 5G will involve combining multiple spectrum bands, will make use of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum and is likely to incorporate very different technology approaches to supporting different use cases.
Mobile communication has proven to be a highly dynamic field that has seen the development of many unanticipated innovations. Even as policymakers act in response to the immediate issues they are facing, they need to preserve the flexibility to respond to new and unanticipated opportunities.
The U.S was one of the first countries globally to deploy 4G, and it still leads the world in 4G deployment today, which has contributed to our thriving digital economy and enabled us to be the leading exporter of innovation. The stakes of global competition are even higher now. As Chairman Wheeler said in a recent speech, U.S. leadership on 5G can lead to a "cornucopia of unanticipated innovative uses" that will improve quality of life and increase economic opportunity. With so much at stake, it’s time to act decisively to make 5G a reality.
Richard Adler is a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has written widely about the future of broadband and its impact on fields such as education, healthcare, government and commerce. Reach him @iftf.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.