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Here comes 5G — but first, a reality check

With last week’s 5G-related announcements, the U.S. is again poised to be a leader in the development and deployment of next-generation wireless technology.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler spoke about 5G “Spectrum Frontiers” at the National Press Club on July 16, 2016.

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

To use an oft-cited term from our election season, last week was huge ... YUGE! ... for 5G in the United States. Two important things happened: First, the FCC announced its "Spectrum Frontiers" plan to make 3.85 GHz of licensed and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum available for 5G in the 28, 37 and 39 GHz millimeter wave bands. There’s a provision for even more spectrum to be released down the line.

A day later, and in conjunction with the FCC’s announcement, the White House announced the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, a plan to spend up to $400 million over the next seven years to research and develop next-generation wireless technologies.

I guess there has been a truce since President Obama strong-armed FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler into network neutrality two years ago.

With the 5G-related announcements last week, the U.S. is again poised to be a leader in the development and deployment of next-generation wireless technology.

With lots of negativity in the air during this political season, here’s an opportunity to feel positive about something. Although the U.S. falls into the middle of the pack on broadband, it has been a leader in wireless — it’s the only country with four national LTE networks, and in the upper quartile on many other mobile-related metrics, such as usage, average speeds, level of competition and so on. Much of the innovation in wireless comes from U.S.-based companies and venture capital, from chips to phone operating systems and apps, and many network-related elements and technologies. With the 5G-related announcements last week, the U.S. is again poised to be a leader in the development and deployment of next-generation wireless technology.

Importantly, the FCC has put a stake in the ground by making the real estate available for 5G. There’s still much to be ironed out in terms of how that spectrum will actually be allocated and auctioned, and its availability for widespread commercial use is still several years away. For now, the idea of using millimeter wave spectrum amounts to a giant, NASA-like R&D project, requiring still-to-be-developed advances in smart antennas, beam-forming capabilities and other areas.

So, what might 5G look like? First, it will be very, very different from the evolution to the previous "Gs" in wireless. 2G was the move from analog to digital, 3G showed us that cellular networks could be used for data in addition to voice and text and 4G signaled that wireless networks could get into the neighborhood of broadband, albeit at fundamentally different economics.

5G is going to be different. It is not "Citius, Altius, Fortius," as in the 2G-3G-4G evolution. First, 5G is going to represent a mix of licensed and unlicensed spectrum, and some of that spectrum is going to be shared. The FCC has been on a mission to foster the development of spectrum-sharing technologies, going back to the National Broadband Plan and TV White Spaces, and more recently with the 3.5 GHz ruling (see my July 8 Techpinions piece on 3.5GHz). Having unlicensed as part of the Spectrum Frontiers proposal continues us down the path of the narrowing delta between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, and provides for many configurations of IoT devices to be connected to the networks and a new group of service providers in addition to the current Big Four cellular incumbents.

Second, 5G is going to look more like Super Wi-Fi than a traditional mobile cellular network. At these high-spectrum bands, a vast density of small cells will be required — somewhere around one small cell per 12 homes in relatively dense areas, according to an excellent recent report from the folks at New Street Research. From the standpoint of how we currently use cellular, this means 4G LTE will probably still be the foundation network, especially for mobility, with "pockets" of 5G in cities or for fixed/pedestrian-centric type use. Early 5G, or "pre-5G," networks will largely be for fixed wireless use. 5G has the potential to deliver vastly faster speeds and dramatically lower latency, exceeding today’s fixed broadband networks in some instances. But 5G, and this type of performance, will not be ubiquitous and mobility-centric in the way 4G is today.

The economics of 5G will have to be fundamentally different.

Third — and this is an area where we still don’t have a lot of insight — is that the economics of 5G will have to be fundamentally different. There’s been a lot of focus on 5G’s potential for gigabyte speeds and 1 millisecond latency. But today’s 4G networks still cost the carriers about $1 to deliver a gigabyte of data. So the augmented reality or 4K video discussion stops right there unless we get orders of magnitude improvements in wireless economics. Given that vast numbers of small cells will be required for 5G, we will need to harness advances in network virtualization, cloud RAN and a "network as a service" framework in order to improve on the costs.

Finally, 5G will be heavily focused on IoT. It is interesting that the SoftBank acquisition of ARM occurred within days of the 5G news in the U.S. Much of the justification of the lofty acquisition price was a bet on the future of IoT. While many believe in the broad promise and potential of IoT, the market itself is nascent, and nobody (no matter how many analyst reports you read) has a really good idea yet of which IoT segments will take off.

What is most interesting is that the public sector is taking a far more active role in the evolution of wireless than it historically has. Dare I say "industrial policy"? The FCC has committed to making the "real estate" available for 5G. The technology for commercial wireless at high-spectrum bands is within our sights, but there are years of development work to do. The framework for public-private and intra/inter-industry investment and cooperation is there. In a tumultuous summer geopolitically, and an angst-ridden season politically, this is something to be excited about.

A leading wireless industry analyst and consultant, Mark Lowenstein is the managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Most recently, Lowenstein was a member of the senior leadership team at Verizon Wireless, where as vice president of strategy he led the company’s efforts in product and business planning, market segmentation, national pricing and customer intelligence for both consumer and enterprise markets. Reach him @marklowenstein.

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