Wheeler Begins Push to Free Up ‘Unprecedented’ Spectrum for 5G

Wheeler said leading the FCC was "the greatest honor of my professional life." (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

The Federal Communications Commission is embarking on opening up what Chairman Tom Wheeler calls an “unprecedented” amount of airwaves for a 5G network through a new proposal set for a July vote.

Wheeler said he will send a proposed rule on Thursday to his fellow four commissioners that will “identify and open up vast amounts of spectrum for 5G applications.” He told an audience at the National Press Club on Monday that the agency will vote on the proposed rules on July 14.

“If the United States is going to continue to be a world leader in wireless, we need to speed the deployment of 5G here, on our shores,” Wheeler said.

Wireless companies and policy makers are gearing up for the eventual advent of 5G technology that will bring vastly faster connection speeds to American mobile devices.

AT&T Inc. said it expects the newest generation of wireless to bring speeds 10 to 100 times faster than 4G LTE connections. It plans to upgrade measure networks using gigabits per second as opposed to megabits per second. At one megabit per second, a user could download a TV show in three seconds, according to AT&T.

The development of the Internet of Things, smart cities and autonomous cars all bring urgency to speeding up wireless connections.

For Wheeler, it is important to enable American companies to seize the opportunity that 5G presents by freeing up as much spectrum as possible. The spectrum, some of it highly valuable and formerly thought of as untenable for mobile connections, will serve as the building blocks for the next generation wireless.

If the FCC approves of Wheeler’s proposal, he says “the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications.”

Wheeler says he wants to use a hands-off government approach to encourage private sector deployment, as the U.S. did with 4G. His proposed formula will primarily focus on freeing up airwaves in high-band spectrum frequencies for private sector use. But Wheeler also said the proposal aims to improve spectrum availability in low and mid-band spectrum.

The industry should be pleased with these announcements. Opening up these high bands is key to ensuring the U.S. becomes the world leader in 5G, Meredith Attwell Baker, president and chief executive of CTIA the Wireless Association, wrote in a Monday post.

“Moving with urgency is critical because other countries want to seize our mantle of mobile leadership,” Baker wrote. “From the EU to Japan and South Korea, policymakers abroad hope to reap the financial, social and technological benefits of deploying 5G first.”

CTIA represents AT&T, Verizon Communications and T-Mobile.

Until recently, researchers thought that wireless signals at high frequencies couldn’t be used for mobile connections because they travel in straight lines. The thinking had been that any obstacle in the signal’s path would disrupt the connection. But “technological advances in computing and antennas” are unlocking the potential of those frequencies, Wheeler said Monday.

Airwaves in high-band frequencies are being targeted as potentially vital additions to wireless companies’ networks for areas with high-density populations such as urban cities or arena-like venues.

Aside from providing private companies with the infrastructure needed to develop and deploy 5G networks, the FCC will aim to “stay out of the way” of the industry’s way. The agency will aim to avoid imposing regulations that could impede the rollout of the technology.

“The future has a way of inventing itself,” Wheeler said. “Turning innovators loose is far preferable to expecting committees and regulators to define the future. We won’t wait for the standards to be first developed in the sometimes-arduous standards-setting process or in a government-led activity.”

Wheeler said the agency will look to hand over the spectrum and then allow “a private sector-led process” to decide standards. This is a key point for the industry. Wireless providers will need to account for the changes to the network that come with using new frequencies. High-band spectrum travels in much shorter spurts than traditional spectrum and “will require the deployment of thousands of new small cells the size of smoke alarms,” Baker said in her post.

“This network evolution requires a new infrastructure approach, and Congress, the FCC and states must streamline and simplify local siting and rights of way rules,” Baker said.

Wireless network providers have a lot at stake with 5G, as they are already beginning to publicize their forays into the new frontier of wireless connectivity.

In February, AT&T announced that it hoped to get field trials of 5G in fixed locations in Austin by the end of 2016. Verizon began its own field tests of 5G this year. As these wireless giants compete with each other, building those networks on a tight schedule will be important.

There is one potential source of disagreement. Baker urged the FCC to “avoid experimenting with novel spectrum sharing regimes or new technology mandates.”

Wheeler, in contrast, said spectrum sharing is “essential for the future of spectrum utilization.” He said he hopes to improve spectrum sharing between satellite and federal users, since both could be present in the high-bands of airwaves.

“We will strike a balance that offers flexibility for satellite users to expand, while providing terrestrial licensees with predictability about the areas in which satellite will locate,” Wheeler said.

Unlicensed spectrum will also be addressed in Wheeler’s proposal. He said he will propose to leave an unlicensed band of 14 gigahertz of airwaves free of official ownership. This spectrum is used most notably for Wi-Fi connections. Wheeler said that band will have “the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation.”

This will please industry members, as well as one of Wheeler’s FCC colleagues, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “We love Wi-Fi,” Rosenworcel wrote in a Monday opinion piece for Morning Consult. “We need to plan now for more unlicensed spectrum in the future. This is the best way to grow opportunities for Wi-Fi and keep the cool things it has created coming our way.”


This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Meredith Attwell Baker’s name.

Morning Consult