A decision last week by the FCC to open large swaths of high-frequency radio spectrum for use in next generation wireless networks marks a turning point in the mobile revolution. A new standard, known as 5G, is coming soon.
In addition to blazing fast speeds for tomorrow’s mobile devices, 5G networks will be the platform for new innovations, including the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, ultra high-definition video, remote health care, and augmented reality. Along with many disruptors yet to be imagined.
Already, U.S. providers are promising to deploy 5G networks as early as 2020, with Verizon slated to begin field trials in 2017. Both Korea and Japan are committed to demonstrating some 5G applications for the 2018 and 2020 Olympics. And China and the European Union recently inked a deal to share 5G research in hopes of beating the United States and other providers to the market.
What is 5G?
It’s clear that enthusiasm for 5G is building among investors and developers. But what exactly is it?
On the networking side, 5G differs from earlier standards by the use of multiple radio access technologies depending on the device and application. These include extremely high or “millimeter wave” frequencies above 24 GHz, considered until recently to be unusable for mobile applications.
As equipment providers and network operators worldwide race to develop technology and standards for the next generation of mobile communications, it’s now clear that these higher frequencies represent beachfront spectrum for future 5G services.
Used in combination with lower-band spectrum already deployed for 4G LTE networks, the next generation of mobile networks promise data speeds that may exceed 10 gigabits per second — ten times what is currently available on the fastest fixed networks using fiber optic cables.
For the Internet of Things, for example, communication of very small amounts of information by billions of devices will take place at lower frequencies, while millimeter wave frequencies will be employed for massive capacity and speed needed by high-definition video and real-time virtual reality.
The new frequencies will be deployed in densely packed small cells, supplementing existing cell towers with lower profile antenna arrays placed much closer together. Low-cost radios will allow mobile devices to automatically change frequencies depending on needs and network traffic. Software will constantly redefine the physical network into multiple virtual networks in a technique known as “network slicing.”
And 5G is much more than a networking standard. It represents a fundamental rearchitecting of core Internet standards, effectively remaking the Internet to be natively mobile.
As part of the Future Internet Architecture project, for example, all Internet content will be addressable independently of the server on which it was originally hosted. That new architecture will allow natively mobile 5G networks to operate at vastly higher speeds with better security and greatly reduced complexity.
Even so, millimeter wave spectrum and 5G protocols will supplement, not replace, the continued evolution of 4G LTE networks, which still require additional lower-band spectrum to increase capacity and capabilities.
That theme was highlighted at last week’s FCC meeting. In a post announcing the 5G rulemaking, Chairman Tom Wheeler noted that an auction now rescheduled for early next year for 600 MHz spectrum, currently used for fading over-the-air television broadcasting, will be crucial not only to the continuing explosion in popularity of today’s mobile devices and services but also for the Internet of Things and other upcoming disruptors.
“In much the same way that 700 MHz paved the way for America’s world-leading deployment of 4G,” Wheeler wrote in August, “so could 600 MHz accelerate U.S. deployment of 5G.”
5G policies for an unknown future
If all of this sounds a little vague, that’s because much of the 5G technology and standards are still in development. On the standards front, multiple international bodies are involved in different aspects of 5G, including the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union, which is working on spectrum harmonization plans to designate the same frequencies to the same uses worldwide.
Harmonization wasn’t possible for 4G LTE, and that has meant slower deployment in some parts of the world, particularly Europe. For 5G, global harmonization will be even more important for networking equipment and device manufacturers, making it possible to achieve the economies of scale necessary to keep prices low for potentially billions of mobile devices.
As that example suggests, long-term spectrum planning is essential even in the early stages of 5G’s evolution. At a recent conference I helped organize — produced by the Wireless Technology Association and the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy — some participants urged the FCC to open broader ranges of millimeter wave frequencies than those included in last week’s order, as well as additional bands below 6 GHz, criticisms underscored by Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly.
Some of the most valuable 5G spectrum, moreover, is locked up in departments and agencies of the federal government itself, much of it unused or underutilized.
Developers of networking equipment, devices, and applications will also need to continue relying on a background rule of “permissionless innovation” that has driven U.S. dominance throughout the information revolution.
That was a point underscored at the Georgetown conference by Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, who noted that at least two dozen federal agencies, including the FTC, have already claimed some oversight over the emerging Internet of Things.
The importance of regulatory humility
To ensure that consumer benefits are neither denied nor delayed, she said, regulators need to avoid panicking in the face of disruptive innovations and instead practice what she calls “regulatory humility.” That includes deferring prescriptive rules early in the life of new technology in favor of case-by-case enforcement as fast-changing applications develop and often resolve their own problems.
Ohlhausen pointed to examples where self-regulation by industry participants, with a regulatory backstop from the FTC, had served to protect consumers while encouraging experimentation. That approach, she said, allowed the agency to reserve its limited resources for cases of actual consumer harm, such as where new devices lacked even basic data security.
Permissionless innovation in 5G design may also run afoul of overbroad “net neutrality” regulations adopted by the FCC earlier this year (currently the subject of a massive legal challenge.) Much of the new 5G architecture at both the core and the edges of the network will prioritize traffic that demands low latency, for example, and maintain persistent content throughout multiple virtual networks in what might be seen by non-engineers as faster and slower “lanes” of data traffic.
Reflecting on these features at the end of the conference, former FCC Chief Economist Tim Brennan wondered whether the net neutrality rules would allow the kind of experimentation necessary for 5G technology to find its “killer app.”
That’s a crucial question. While other economies rely heavily on government funding, innovation in the United States follows a decidedly entrepreneurial model. So getting policies right, and from the start, will be crucial to unlocking private investment for 5G technologies, which could cost almost $2 trillion just for network upgrades.
The U.S.’s dominant lead in 4G LTE deployment has spurred intense competition in the race to 5G. Other countries and regional economies are determined to avoid past mistakes, and are already spending massive public funds. As long-time White House technology advisor Jim Kohlenberger wrote in a recent paper for the trade group Mobile Future, “Global economic rivals have already left the starting gate in this next innovation race. The United States must move quickly and decisively to pull ahead.”
How quickly? Maybe as fast as 10 gigabits per second.