The next generation of wireless technology—5G—is now moving from concept to reality. Using millimeter wave spectrum, Verizon is offering commercial mobile 5G in 22 cities. AT&T has announced that it has hit peak speeds of 2 gigabits per second on its Atlanta commercial mobile 5G network. T-Mobile announced in its most recent earnings call that it expects to begin mobile 5G deployment in the second half of 2019, while Sprint announced that it expects to initiate 5G in the first half of this year. By the end of next year, most Americans can expect to have 5G available in their area.
5G has tremendous promise for Americans, with its combination of high speed, high capacity, and low latency. It will provide the “connect” in connected cars, enabling autonomous vehicles to know the traffic around them. It will facilitate medical procedures on patients in remote areas by surgeons in major medical centers. Its connectivity will put the “smart” in smart cities. And it will expedite fun stuff, like gaming and video streaming, by enhancing speed and reducing buffering.
Because 5G will enable many critical functions, security is essential. A millisecond interruption in a game or video is annoying, but not dangerous. In contrast, such an interruption during autonomous driving could result in a traffic pile-up that endangers many people. Disruption of remote surgery could be deadly. For the infrastructure of the networks that carry the traffic and that interconnect with each other as well as for all the devices attached to them, cybersecurity is vital.
As Americans upgrade from the current generation of technology to 5G, the networks will need to expand capacity as well as coverage. For that, the carriers need to add new spectrum in both the mid-band and high-band ranges. The efforts of the FCC, NTIA and other government agencies to identify spectrum that can be made available for commercial use—and to do so as rapidly as possible–are vitally important to American consumers.
Mid-band spectrum’s propagation characteristics allow the signal to travel for relatively long distances, so that a cell site can provide coverage for several miles, which can be essential in rural areas. High-band spectrum, also known as millimeter-wave spectrum, travels very short distances but is available in large amounts, making it possible to provide high-speed service to large numbers of users, particularly useful in dense urban environments.
To use high-band spectrum, the carriers will have to deploy hundreds of thousands of new cell sites, which will be small and generally easy to mount on existing structures. The main barrier here is often the permitting process which is still geared to the tall towers used for prior generations of technology. Speeding up this process is essential—no matter how ready carriers are to invest, no matter how ready equipment is for deployment, service can’t happen where permits for deployment are lacking.
Wireless carriers do, indeed, invest heavily in their networks. Citi Research in a March 18th Telecom Tracker reported that the industry spent over $29.1 billion in 2018, up from $27.5 billion in 2016, on capital expenditures. Recognizing this large and growing investment as well as the expertise of the carriers in building and operating their networks, President Trump announced on April 12th that the U.S. will continue to rely on private wireless networks as its wireless infrastructure.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been working on all of these issues. At its May meeting, it will ensure that American wireless networks will not have to interconnect with a network that may pose cyber threats. The FCC has made high-band spectrum available for deployment via two recent auctions and is working on providing even more via an auction at the end of this year. It is also working on providing mid-band spectrum, most likely next year. It has addressed the permitting process, by requiring localities to act with reasonable speed, but without prejudging their decisions. Thanks in large part to the FCC, backed by the Administration, NTIA and other agencies, 5G has arrived and will bring tremendous benefits to American consumers.
Anna-Maria Kovacs, Ph.D., CFA, is a Visiting Senior Policy Scholar at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. She has covered the communications industry for more than three decades as a financial analyst and consultant.