When you use the LTE connection in your smartphone, that mobile data travels over invisible airwaves that support everything from Google Maps to FaceTime. But not long from now, all sorts of devices will be connected wirelessly to the Internet, from home appliances to automobiles to virtual reality headsets — and they'll all need lots of fast, reliable bandwidth.
That's why the government on Monday announced it's looking to open up a huge swath of these airwaves for companies to play with, more than they've ever had before. If it's approved, the result could lead to an array of new apps, services and ways to send and receive information of all kinds. To draw an analogy, it could be to wireless Internet what gigabit fiber meant for wired networks: massive amounts of new capacity that unlocks the next generation of Internet-driven entrepreneurship.
Here are the nuts and bolts of the plan, which will be officially circulated by Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to his fellow commissioners Thursday.
If it's approved, companies will start getting licenses to use the airwaves at extremely high frequencies compared to today. Many of our existing cordless phones and WiFi antennas work in the 2.4 gigahertz range, but the policy change from the FCC would open up channels in the 28 GHz range and higher.
"That’s damn important," said Wheeler in a speech Monday, "because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate" developing new technologies and standards for 5G, the next in mobile Internet after the current generation of 4G.
What's so special about this part of the radio spectrum? Well, at such high frequencies the airwaves don't go through walls or very far; they just tend to bounce around instead of penetrating obstacles. But that may not be a bad thing; it means companies like Verizon or AT&T could set up hyper-local cell sites around a hospital, for example, and the hospital could use all the bandwidth provided by that site without worrying about others clogging the site with demand.
Not only will these new channels be higher up in frequency — they'll also be much, much wider, which makes them able to support a lot more wireless traffic. Imagine the difference between a small residential road and extra-wide highways, and that's kind of what we're talking about here. Instead of channels that are 5 or 10 megahertz in size, you'd get 200 MHz-channels, said Wheeler.
Under the plan, the government would set aside as much as 14 GHz for unlicensed uses. That's a huge chunk of airwaves not owned or controlled by any corporation and that can be used for Bluetooth, WiFi, garage door openers, hobbyists and tinkerers. Companies in the mobile industry may get access to their own, massive swath of commercial spectrum in what Wheeler called the government's biggest such offering in history.
The upshot is that Americans may soon be among the first to start tinkering with 5G mobile Internet and all that follows from it. The FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler's proposal next month.