Many wireless carriers are still rolling out their 4G LTE networks. But federal regulators are already turning their eye toward next-gen technologies that will allow incredibly fast mobile data. We're talking rates that are 1,000 times faster than what the average American gets at home today from a fixed broadband connection.
Welcome to the era of 5G.
At some point, most wireless technologies are thwarted by obstacles or distance. That's because wireless spectrum -- the airwaves that carry mobile voice and data -- are subject to the same laws of physics that govern everything else. But the Federal Communications Commission thinks there might be promise in a high-energy spectrum that the industry has taken to calling "millimeter waves," due to their high frequency. And on Friday, the FCC said it would begin asking the public just what it can do to promote this technology.
We already know of a few possibilities. Wireless transmissions today generally require a line-of-sight connection between the source and the receiver. But with advanced spectrum in the 24 gigahertz range — far higher than where most wireless devices operate (in the sub-3 GHz range) — engineers believe they can "ricochet" signals around obstacles.
"Our next-generation networks are going to have to do some heavy lifting," said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "So how do we meet those demands? We look up. Way, way up. To infinity and beyond."
Future mobile technologies could exceed the 24 GHz threshold and take advantage of even higher-intensity airwaves in the 60 GHz or even 90 GHz bands. These moves could allow for mobile broadband ranging from 1 gigabit per second (which is equivalent to the best that today's fiber-optic networks have to offer) to a mind-boggling 10 gigabits per second, according to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.
It won't be long before Americans start connecting more than just smartphones and tablets to the Internet. Soon they'll be linking appliances, cars, drones and all manner of other mobile devices, meaning that consumer and business demand for these airwaves is going to spike.
And that means telecom companies will need more freedom to deploy cell sites, particularly towers that can create smaller cells to help manage congestion. Separately Friday, the FCC approved measures that would make it easier for wireless companies to build these towers.
While there's no universally agreed-upon definition for 5G, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said it was imperative to begin deciding now which spectrum bands can be used and how they'll be licensed to wireless companies.
"I don't care what they call it — millimeter wave, 5G, kumquats — I don't care," Wheeler said. "What we do when we open the [notice of inquiry] is to help us answer those kinds of questions."