More Spectrum Needed for 5G

As we’ve moved from one wireless generation to the next, consumers and the economy have benefited from ever-increasing connection speeds and capabilities. Consider this: When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was built for a 2G network that was best suited for calls and simple data functions like texting. Fast forward to today, and iPhones and other smartphones are operating on more advanced networks and are loaded with apps for ride sharing, fitness tracking, video streaming and much, much more. The app economy, which is still relatively new, is booming and expected to exceed $6 trillion in value in the next few years. A combination of good policy, investment, and innovation have taken us to this point and will be critical to ushering in the next generation – 5G (“G” stands for Generation). 

5G is expected to bring speeds up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks and operate in near real-time. That means movies will download significantly faster and apps will load almost instantaneously. It also means that virtual reality-enabled health care, education and job-training technologies that require a real-time connection to be effective can flourish.

In order for the United States to lead the world to this revolutionary generation of wireless and reap the benefits that come with it, we need leaders at all levels of government to set good policies that encourage investment and innovation. With red tape out of the way and the right resources in place, 5G networks will be built nationwide in a timely manner.

When it comes to laying infrastructure, it’s easy to focus on what you can see. But with wireless networks, it’s what you can’t see is just as important.

Spectrum is the invisible airwaves that allow us to talk, text, post, watch, monitor, and research from the convenience of a mobile device. The more we want to do on those mobile devices, the more spectrum we need to ensure a fast, seamless experience. To put this more into perspective, Cisco found that mobile data traffic in North America grew 44 percent in 2016 alone. Imagine the growth that’s ahead with 5G enabling the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The challenge is that spectrum is a finite resource, meaning there’s only so much of it. As the need for it grows, the Federal Communications Commission in particular will play a significant role in freeing up more spectrum for commercial wireless use.

In recent years, the FCC has made notable progress – including a first-of-its-kind incentive auction to free up low-band spectrum from broadcasters, and now it’s working on an auction to free up high-band spectrum. More needs to be done, however, especially with mid-band spectrum.

Each type of spectrum – low, mid, and high – has it’s own unique characteristics, and all will be needed for 5G to be successful and deliver on expectations for lightening-fast speeds and real-time responsiveness for virtual reality and innovative technologies we haven’t even thought of yet. In the simplest terms, low-band travels far, high-band can carry significant capacity, and mid-band is the sweet spot.

During last week’s open meeting, the FCC took a good step forward with regard to freeing up more mid-band spectrum as it considers a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding the 3.7-4.2 GHz band. Satellite operators currently use it but have expressed a willingness to work toward a win-win solution that balances the goals of bringing more mid-band spectrum to market for commercial wireless use and protecting their interests.

A similar approach – seeking to find a win-win scenario – was taken with broadcasters and will certainly be used in the future as additional spectrum that’s occupied by private and public interests – including the government – is identified to meet ever-growing demand for mobile services. 

Given that network programmers, broadcasters and cable operators rely on the C-band (3.7-4.2 GHz) to carry much of the nation’s video programming, it is important to protect these existing operations while exploring the goal of freeing up more of this spectrum. Nailing down specific bands in this manner will encourage investment by allowing wireless carriers to better plan their 5G networks for maximum efficiency.

It is also important for the FCC to set aside money to help unserved and underserved areas. Critically, any funds allocated to these areas must be technology neutral.

The dog days of summer may be upon us, but it’s good to see that the FCC isn’t slowing down. It knows the global race to 5G is on, and it’s focused on taking actions that will position the United States to take the lead. Ensuring a diverse spectrum pipeline is absolutely part of the equation for success.

Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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