It will be years until Americans use a 5G network to send messages, browse the internet and power mobile devices, but the Federal Communications Commission took a big step in giving U.S. companies a strong foothold in the market by adopting new rules Thursday to give them access to more airwaves.
The FCC voted unanimously on a final rule to allow mobile broadband to use high frequency airwaves that were previously deemed untenable for wireless. Engineers and wireless companies have since identified these high spectrum bands as a good resource to beef up their networks.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called it “one of, if not the most important, decisions” the agency will make in 2016.
5G is said to have the potential to bring connection speeds 10 times faster than those on the current 4G network and a response time of less than a thousandth of a second, which could lead to real-time conversations through mobile devices. It will also help power augmented and virtual reality platforms, which fans of the sometimes-glitchy Pokemon Go might like.
Most importantly, FCC commissioners believe the move will allow the U.S. to break out as a world leader in the new technology. “By becoming the first nation to identify high-band spectrum, the U.S. is ushering in the 5G era of high-capacity, high-speed, low-latency wireless networks,” Wheeler said.
“We must maintain our position as a world leader in wireless innovation,” said FCC Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly at the commission’s open meeting. “Other nations like South Korea, China, Japan seek to challenge our status, and we are ideally situated to usher in the next wave of wireless technologies based on our pre-eminence and experience gained in deploying 4G technologies.”
South Korea and Japan both plan to have 5G technology ready by the time they host the Olympics — South Korea will host the Winter Olympics in 2018, and Japan will host the Summer Olympics in 2020 — and the European Commission and China both have action plans to bolster their 5G research.
“Even though standardization is still under way, and commercialization may not occur until the end of the decade, work is being done worldwide,” said FCC Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “For 5G technology to truly take off and for the United States to win this race, we need spectrum and lots of it.”
The technology is still new, so the FCC had to make the spectrum available for private sector use without imposing strict regulations on technologies that haven’t even been invented yet.
Wheeler said the new rule opens up four times the total amount of spectrum currently available for mobile technology. But because nobody is sure carriers will capitalize on high frequency airwaves, the FCC has to make sure their rules don’t squelch innovation.
The rules will allow for shared access to certain bands of airwaves, exclusive licensing to some swaths, and unlicensed access. The agency’s action includes flexible rules for various technologies that providers might develop to build out their next-generation mobile networks.
AT&T Inc. praised the FCC’s vote. “We believe that the FCC’s actions today will provide the clarity needed to move forward with confidence with 5G trials and development, ensuring continued U.S. leadership in wireless innovation and services,” said Joan Marsh, vice president of federal regulatory affairs at AT&T, in a statement. She said the company still has to review the rules but supports them so far.
CTIA the Wireless Association praised the decision as “a clear victory for Americans’ mobile-first lives.”
Earlier this month, Verizon announced it was the first U.S. carrier to finish specifications for 5G radio waves. In June, Sprint showed off its 5G capabilities to an audience at the Copa América Centenario soccer tournament. They said it was the first time that a U.S. carrier showcased 5G at a “large scale public event.”
Developing the technology has been tough because of the physical properties of signals traveling in high frequencies. But airwaves in those bands can carry immense amounts of data, which has made them attractive to industry members.
In such high frequencies, radio waves propagate poorly and waves travel in straight lines, meaning that any sort of obstacle — from rain to fog to buildings — can cause a disruption. Researchers now believe they have found ways to circumvent these issues, which will make a big difference in places with high-density populations.
FCC observers also appreciated the change of recent pace to see a major FCC vote greeted with a chorus of approval from lots of perspectives.
Telecom policy has split Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill over the past few years, but House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) wrote a Thursday letter to Wheeler pressing the FCC to pass his proceeding.
The consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge called the FCC’s new rules “a substantial step forward in laying the groundwork for the next generation of wireless technologies.” The group is often at odds with industry groups, especially those representing the major companies.
INCOMPAS, the trade group representing competitive networks, also praised the decision. “Competition policy laid the foundation for 5G, and competition policy must guide the 5G future,” Chip Pickering, president and chief executive of the group said in a statement.