The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion 5G is in reach. But only if we set the right policies.

A woman uses a virtual reality headset with 5G technology at the World Internet of Things exposition in Wuxi, China, on Sept. 15.
A woman uses a virtual reality headset with 5G technology at the World Internet of Things exposition in Wuxi, China, on Sept. 15. (ALEKSANDAR PLAVEVSKI/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/Aleksandar Plavevski/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Ajit Pai is the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Many people are familiar with 4G LTE. That’s the wireless technology that makes your phone “smart” — it lets you use your favorite apps, text friends and (outdated though it seems) make a call.

That’s the mobile world of today. But imagine a future with 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity. Applications such as remote robotic surgery, virtual reality gaming and crash-avoiding smart cars could become reality. A strong innovation economy could propel the United States’ economic growth and create countless jobs. Internet speeds could be 100 or even 1,000 times faster than 4G. And communities currently on the wrong side of the digital divide (especially lower-income urban and rural areas) could obtain quick connections for the first time.

These are all things that “could” be. But they won’t if the United States doesn’t set the right policies. Other countries, especially China, are eager to seize these opportunities for themselves, confident that the first mover will claim the bulk of the benefits (as happened when the United States led on 4G). That’s why the White House is hosting a 5G summit Friday to underscore the importance of this issue and of moving quickly.

What do we need to do to advance U.S. leadership in 5G? I call it the 5G FAST Plan, which will “Facilitate American Superiority in 5G Technology.” The plan includes a few key components, including freeing up spectrum and promoting wireless infrastructure. Here are some of the ways the FCC is addressing each.

As for spectrum, the FCC has been aggressively making more radio waves available for Americans to use. Last year, we concluded the world’s first incentive auction, in which spectrum once used by TV broadcasters was sold to wireless companies to expand bandwidth and coverage for consumers. We’ve scheduled the United States’ first two high-band 5G spectrum auctions, which will begin later this year, and we are on track to auction off three more bands next year. We’re also exploring how to repurpose mid-band spectrum for new wireless applications, from rural broadband coverage to the next generation of WiFi. And we’re working with other federal agencies to free up spectrum held by the federal government (which has held a majority of the airwaves for some time). These auctions not only provide more wireless capabilities to more consumers, but they also raise billions of dollars in non-tax revenue for our nation.

Infrastructure policy is critical as well. All the spectrum in the world won’t make a difference if we don’t have physical infrastructure to carry 5G traffic. That’s going to be a challenge, because the 5G networks of the future will look very different from the 4G networks we know today. Instead of 200-foot cell towers dominating the landscape, 5G networks will rely more heavily on “small cells” — think more inconspicuous equipment, perhaps no larger than a pizza box, more densely deployed and operating at much lower power (the closer an antenna is to a phone, the less power is required to connect the two). We’ll also need a lot more fiber optic lines to connect all these small cells to the networks’ core.

But to deploy the hundreds of thousands of small cells and miles of fiber needed for 5G, we need to streamline regulations. We will never realize the 5G future if we impose federal, state, local and tribal regulatory burdens designed for large towers on every single small cell. That’s why the FCC has cut red tape for small-cell deployment and will continue to enable companies to focus on fiber roll out, allowing them to upgrade fading copper networks and making it cheaper and easier to string fiber optic lines on utility poles.

To be sure, the FCC can’t do it alone. Our government overall needs to encourage the kind of innovation that will make 5G networks pop — such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which could help us use spectrum more efficiently and process information generated by mobile devices more quickly. The government needs to break down artificial barriers to 5G so that, for example, state-by-state licensing restrictions don’t prevent telemedicine entrepreneurs from offering medical expertise virtually. And it needs to ensure that regulators approach newer companies whose services rely on 5G connectivity — think the Airbnbs and Lyfts of the future — based on whether consumers are better off, not on old regulatory paradigms.

Forty-five years ago, the visionary engineer Martin Cooper made the first-ever cellphone call. It’s incredible how quickly and profoundly wireless technology has changed our world in the years since, especially since 4G’s introduction. Even better things will be ahead if we embrace the 5G future. We can succeed and make countless consumers better off, but only if we choose to act boldly.

Read more:

Christine Emba: Smartphones changed our lives. Let’s think before we invite the robots in.

Hayley Tsukayama: Five myths about smartphones

Mary Barra: New wireless technology could help drastically reduce vehicle crashes