It’s 1964. President Lyndon Johnson, hard at work whipping votes to pass the Civil Rights Act, enjoys a cigarette on his Texas ranch. Between puffs, he lobbies segregationist colleague Senator J. William Fulbright on the bill through his infamously intimidating Johnson Treatment, an imposing, loud, in-your-face posture. But this time, he delivered it via high-tech AT&T 2G mobile connection.
That’s not how the story went. Despite early mobile telephony and blueprints for cellular networks existing by the 1940s and 50s, regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wouldn’t free spectrum channels for wireless phones until the 1980s. It’s fun to speculate how soon within last century our parents and grandparents would’ve sent their first texts if the FCC bureaucrats hadn’t held this spectrum ransom for the broadcast industry. But avoiding the senseless delay in tech development they experienced is more important.
Thankfully, today’s FCC clears spectrum and cuts red tape for next generation “5G” mobile networks. Despite contrary arguments made by this journal’s Digital Content Team, 5G-friendly changes can’t happen fast enough. Upgraded mobile networks will benefit all Americans through improved service and faster innovation.
The 5G Network – And How We’re Getting There
Generally, the wireless industry defines 5G as a new mobile network structure that enables faster speeds, lower latency, and higher capacity for connected devices. Faster speeds mean faster downloads and uploads. Lower latency means nearly zero signal delay, enabling technologies that depend on immediate reactivity, such as virtual reality or autonomous vehicles. Capacity for more connected devices means integrating Internet functionalities further into life. Connection already seeps deeper with devices such as Alexa, smartwatches, and browser-enabled refrigerators. These upgrades will make mobile networks more useful than ever.
Achieving 5G’s promise requires smarter spectrum allocations and infrastructure for mobile broadband. In 5G networks, carriers for the first time will deploy high-band spectrum, which has greater capacity than frequencies used by 4G LTE. The FCC recently auctioned high-band spectrum in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz frequencies with pending moves for the 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands that will transmit the fastest, highest capacity mobile speeds available. High-band frequencies are dubbed “millimeter waves,” since they repeat wave cycles within mere millimeters – providing unprecedented space for data. Carriers will deploy hundreds of “small cell” antennas in densely populated areas to make use of high-band spectrum. These antennas sit closer to customers than the large, distant towers currently delivering 4G to your phone. Shorter distance between phone and antenna reduces latency. Thankfully, the FCC streamlined rules, blocked extortion by local governments, and cut red tape for small cell deployment in 2018, a move largely upheld by the D.C. Circuit.
Critics wrongly assume that 5G will leave rural America behind because millimeter waves only travel a few hundred yards and don’t penetrate buildings, making it an urban fixture. But 5G and high-band aren’t synonyms – high-band spectrum is only one piece of the 5G puzzle. Speeds will improve for all mobile customers because carriers will deliver 5G with an all-band strategy that increases mobile bandwidth by transmitting data over a wider spectrum range than 4G LTE networks. An all-band strategy reduces congestion for existing spectrum by splitting data transmission over more spectrum, regardless of whether you have a high band antenna nearby.
Yes, areas dotted with small cells and enmeshed with millimeter waves – like large urban centers – will have the fastest speeds. But it’d be senseless to kill innovation just because some people benefit less than others. The point is that everyone benefits from 5G, and 5G benefits rural America by exceeding existing rural options. Disregarding 5G due to disparate, positive impact is like riding horses instead of driving cars because some cars are faster than others. Even if some people get Ferraris, there’s nothing wrong with a Lexus.
Low-Band & Mid-Band Spectrum:
An all-band strategy wouldn’t be possible without FCC Chairman Pai’s action to free-up largely unused mid-band spectrum. The FCC set a June 2020 auction for mid-band spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band, will soon set a 2.5 GHz auction, and will hopefully resolve a heated proceeding over the C-Band. Freeing mid-band spectrum is critical for 5G because these frequencies travel farther than higher frequencies while still bearing high capacity. Currently, Sprint is the only mobile carrier with mid-band holdings and many of its licenses remain unused. Additionally, the FCC’s auction of 600 MHz and changes to the 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands will ensure signals blanket the country and penetrate buildings.
Speaking of Sprint, its approved merger with T-Mobile will ensure a third carrier has adequate spectrum for a nationwide 5G network. The “new T-Mobile” will combine Sprint’s strong mid-band holdings with T-Mobile’s stronger position in low-band and high-band spectrum. While the Department of Justice required T-Mobile to relinquish some of its 800 MHz licenses, the company still maintains strong 600 MHz holdings that deployed on its commercial 5G network in December. With a strong spectrum portfolio, more customers, and greater capacity to draw investment, T-Mobile will be well situated vs. Verizon and AT&T in every market. Without the merger, Sprint would continue bleeding customers to the three networks with better service & spouting bad finances.
Thanks to spectrum reallocation, infrastructure reform, and the Sprint-T-Mobile merger, mobile networks will be better than ever before.
The obvious benefit from 5G networks will be better broadband competition. With improved speeds, wireless broadband will become a real cable substitute. Currently, mean mobile speeds are 33.88 mbps down and 9.75 mbps up. Mean fixed broadband speeds were 96.25 mbps down and 32.88 mbps up in 2018. Tests from earlier this year show 5G networks achieving speeds substantially above one gigabit on high-band spectrum, around 450 mbps on mid-band. Carriers estimate that 5G boosts speeds twenty-fold over 4G LTE networks in perfect conditions, With wireless speeds finally catching up to cable, there will be greater head-to-head competitive pressures.
Customers will have two 5G broadband options: mobile and fixed wireless. Mobile wireless broadband is cellphone service. Improved speeds, latency, and capacity from 5G networks could accelerate the trend of “smartphone only” Internet users who only subscribe to mobile broadband. Smartphone only users doubled from eight percent to seventeen percent of the US population over the past decade and forty-five percent of those shirking home broadband say their smartphone meets their needs. Mobile improvements from 5G could reduce duplicative home broadband subscriptions, or at the very least, pressure cable operators into reducing prices.
Verizon and T-Mobile also offer 5G fixed wireless service that competes with cable. Fixed wireless provides home broadband through rooftop antennas on homes and apartments. The antennas hook to routers that blanket home interiors with 5G-powered Wi-Fi. Since mobile networks avoid costs of stringing and trenching cables, 5G fixed wireless plans are often cheaper than home broadband, although they need line-of-sight to operate. For example, Verizon offers its mobile customers 5G fixed wireless with 900 mbps speeds for $50 per month, while its FiOS cable service costs between $70-80 per month. Faster-than-ever fixed wireless offers new options for low-cost connection in rural America and certain urban settings.
But most importantly, 5G offers a new platform for innovation. Having Internet on the go with workable connections brought us the $820 billion app economy. With 5G, we’ll see the “Internet of Things” come to life. Mobile networks will have greater capacity to handle more devices. Right now, the Internet of Things relies mostly on indoor Wi-Fi connections since 4G signals suffer from latency and interference.
This could change with 5G – its faster, low-latency, high-capacity connections will improve the business case for mobile devices beyond cellphones. This is especially true for technologies dependent on instantaneous reaction, such as autonomous vehicles and virtual reality. Cars need to react to their surrounding in real time and any latency could cost lives. Virtual reality devices that augment our sight and haptics need uninterrupted connection to be useful – otherwise your real-world actions won’t sync with the tech. It’s easy to see how other time-sensitive services like medicine and healthcare might improve. With 5G networks, these techs will become more commonplace and there are likely thousands of uses we can’t predict.
Anybody who thinks 5G is about doing today’s activities with faster speeds or watching Netflix with less buffering misses the point. Business and government have no reason to hold back 5G. When the FCC failed to respond to mobile telephony developments for decades, it crushed generations of economic growth. Similarly, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr noted in a recent speech slamming telecom experts from last decade who shrugged at mobile broadband’s value: “These digital deniers didn’t imagine how Venmo would transform banking… predict what Uber would do for mobility… didn’t foresee that Tinder would disrupt dating.”
If you love your cell phone, think of how much people that never lived to see one could’ve loved theirs. Sure, LBJ’s Johnson Treatment might not have worked over text, but civil rights activists may have enjoyed encrypted texting’s protections against J. Edgar Hoover.
There is no reason to delay the future for today’s people. We are, and should be, hurtling towards 5G.
Baseless Claims about 5G
Understanding the benefits of 5G, I have to touch on two ridiculous claims made by this journal’s Digital Content Team – that 5G will harm weather predictions and that the US policy for 5G networks mirrors communism. Neither are true.
First, stories about 5G ruining weather signals are complete fabrications. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) claimed that 5G deployments in the 24 GHz band would interfere with tools used to detect water vapor in air. NOAA backed its claims with a study showing interference with the weather censor technology called “conical microwave image/sounder.” Weather forecasters no longer use this technology – and its replacement is not susceptible to interference. Currently, 40,000 fixed and microwave links coexist with weather forecasting in the 24 GHz band.
Next, the Digital Content Team analogizes China’s communist central planning with deregulation and best-use spectrum practices in the United States. China’s network is built by state-controlled telecom companies and massive government subsidies. These subsidies hurt Chinese 5G by nursing profligate spending that reduces profitability and consumer-focused service. In contrast, the FCC auctions flexible-use spectrum licenses to highest-bidder mobile carriers. These carriers bid the most because they generate large returns on investment by deploying efficient, quality, profitable 5G mobile service based on market forces. Carrier investment in the United States 5G networks mirrors consumer demand for 5G – deploying it where profitable. This is a focused, efficient approach that empowers customer and carrier control over networks while China’s approach is more like throwing darts while blindfolded.
There is no central control over 5G in the United States. Private companies building investor-funded infrastructure is nothing like communism – which involves blessings from the Politburo, family connections, and a hefty dose of mass starvation, cannibalism, and murder. Joseph Stalin wasn’t 5G ready. Government planners micromanage China’s networks in every single local government jurisdiction. The FCC does the opposite. It eliminates costly requirements for deployment so carriers can plan and deploy their own networks quickly.
If these are the drawbacks of 5G, then there are none.