The Global Race for 5G

As the world continues to move away from traditional forms of communication, such as landline telephones, wireless technology is more popular than ever. According to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly half of all American households now only use cell phones rather than landlines. Wireless networks offer consumers increasing amounts of freedom, making the transition away from conventional networks an easy choice for many. As mobile adoption rates climb and different means of communication and methods of information sharing continue to emerge, the scarcity of the radio airwaves on which wireless networks operate has become a focal point of this expansive technological environment. Concern about how radio airwaves are divided into different clusters, called frequency bands, is not new. These bands are shared throughout many different industries, between many individuals and companies, and by unlicensed and licensed users alike. High-frequency bands are believed to have potentially revolutionary applications, including the development of 5G – the next generation of wireless connectivity.


Licensing different bands of radio airwaves, also known as spectrum, provides an effective way to prevent signals sent through these airwaves from interfering with one another, ensuring signal clarity and quality. Spectrum is typically divided between two different types of stakeholders: licensed providers and unlicensed users.

There are chief differences among licensed and unlicensed transmitters. Unlicensed transmitters operate on lower-band frequencies (around 3 GHz) and are often everyday objects that can be found within a few feet of consumers at any given time. Cordless telephones, garage door openers, baby monitors, and other similar products all function using this type of transmitter, with perhaps the most common unlicensed transmitter being Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Meanwhile, licensed users are those who pay a fee to operate in certain bands of spectrum and broadcast transmissions, such as television service providers.

Consumer and Economic Benefits of 5G

President and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) Gary Shapiro states, “These new bands will be capable of delivering data at much higher speeds than what’s currently available under 4G and LTE, improving the abilities of consumers to truly capitalize on the transformative power of wireless.” According to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry trade group representing the wireless communications sector, consumers will greatly benefit from the adoption of a 5G network – speeds will be more than ten times faster than current 4G networks, signals will be five times more responsive, and there will be 100 times as many wireless devices connected to the network than there are today.

The fifth generation of wireless connectivity is projected to facilitate advancements across a myriad of technological fields, not limited to wireless broadband. Improvements in areas such as robotics, drone technology, medical equipment, and virtual and augmented reality have the potential to progress rapidly, thanks to the high-speed, high-capacity promise of the 5G network.

5G may also be the key to unlocking the Internet of Things (IoT), which is a network of physical devices, vehicles, buildings, and other items embedded with electronic software that allows them to exchange data. Its potential applications include energy conservation through efficient power usage, smart shopping systems and intelligent transportation, among others. A study from Gartner predicts that by 2020, the Internet of Things will consist of between 20 and 30 billion devices, and a report completed by McKinsey Global Institute, estimates that IoT can have an economic impact of between $3.7 and $11.1 trillion by the year 2025.

FCC Ruling

On July 14, 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously voted to release a new block of high-frequency radio airwaves for the development of the 5G network, making the United States the first nation to reserve spectrum for such purposes. High-band spectrum, also known as millimeter-wave spectrum, is defined as any band of airwaves above 24 GHz. As a result of this ruling, a new range of nearly 11 GHz (3.85 GHz licensed, and 7 GHz unlicensed) of high-frequency airwaves above 24 GHz will be available for use by licensed and unlicensed transmitters, wireless carriers, telecommunications companies, satellite operators, and the United States government.

The FCC has not previously undertaken an expansion in spectrum of this scale. The 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum made available in the 28-39 GHz range is more than four times the amount of flexible-use spectrum the FCC had ever licensed. In the 64-71 GHz band, the Commission released 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum, which doubled the amount previously available. This addition completed a contiguous 14 GHz band of unlicensed spectrum, equaling 15 times more than all unlicensed Wi-Fi
spectrum available in lower bands.

In addition to releasing new high-band airwaves, the vote instituted technical rules intended to avoid unnecessary regulatory constraints. The ruling also left the door open for future spectrum expansion and put in place guidelines that will make it easier for old telephone networks to transition to wireless-based networks. Lastly, the decision created guiding principles to finalize the Commission’s regulatory strategy.

The United States is the global leader in 4G, and the decision by the FCC creates opportunities for public and private sector 5G development capabilities while fostering market competition. Licensees are required to submit a statement with their application that includes their intended approach to security and how it will impact the new 5G environment. Today, spectrum blocks are typically available in increments of 5 to 10 MHz. The new millimeter-wave spectrum will be available in blocks upwards of 200 MHz, offering carriers the chance to handle much larger traffic volume and provide higher resolution.

When asked about the Commission’s ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated, “I do believe that this is one of the – if not the – most important decisions this agency will make this year. By becoming the first nation to identify high-band spectrum, the United States is ushering in the 5G era of high-capacity, high-speed, low-latency wireless networks.” Industry experts have stated that the adoption of a 5G wireless network could facilitate unseen connection speeds and create opportunities for innovation and the development of seemingly limitless technologies.

Drawbacks and Opposition

Smaller-band spectrum – such as the 3.5 GHz band smartphones operate on – is capable of carrying a signal for miles, while high-band spectrum can only carry a signal for a matter of meters. Because of this, wireless carriers will be tasked with placing thousands of small signal boosters throughout their regions to optimize communication. This process has the potential to prove both expensive and isolating. Because of high-band spectrum’s limited range, opponents of the FCC’s ruling believe that rural communities are being left behind as the regulation supporting 5G advances. The Executive Director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, Michael Calabrese, voiced his criticism of the decision stating, “The FCC’s order is extremely shortsighted. Because the big carriers will use these bands only in city centers and high-traffic indoor venues, exclusive and indefinite licenses over large geographic areas is a recipe for leaving these millimeter bands vacant in more than 95 percent of the country and millions of venues.”

Although the vote was a unanimous 5-0 decision, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly dissented in part by disagreeing with some of the regulations proposed, particularly those which require licensees to provide their proposed cybersecurity standards. Commissioner O’Reilly stated, “Cybersecurity is an important issue and Congress has assigned authority to oversee it to other agencies. Therefore, I do no support its inclusion in this item, voluntary or not.”

Looking Forward

The FCC’s ruling to foster 5G growth puts the United States at the head of the race for global wireless dominance. Globally, 5G testing is in its infancy, but the future is on the horizon. 2016 and 2017 will see major and widespread trials, while 2018 is targeted for early deployment of 5G services.

Although experts do not all agree on the proposed distribution strategy of this new spectrum, the development of 5G-enabled technology is sure to promote innovation, and the network’s capabilities are expected to be profound. It is clear that consumers and various industries stand to benefit from a 5G platform that can enable exciting services and usher in the future of connectivity.

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