In the Race to 5G, the United States is Falling Behind

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Written by Hannah Bergstrom

“The future of 5G is the key to our economic security and our national security”, said Jessica Rosenworcel, Commissioner for the FCC at a discussion with the Atlantic recently. During the “Ideas Exchange: The Race to 5G” two FCC Commissioners, one democratic and one republican, took the stage with Steve Clemons to discuss the future of 5G and its impact on the United States.

Media outlets around the world are buzzing with the term “5G”: the fifth generation of internet connectivity that promises unprecedented speeds and coverage. But the future of 5G is not just about downloading seasons of your favorite TV shows in a matter of seconds. 5G is a matter of both economic and national security, and brings with it the promise of significant technological advances.

One of the promises of 5G is the ability to build smart cities. An advanced network that can connect an array of devices could help coordinate traffic, build communication between automated vehicles, and much more. 5G could solve some of the major issues that cities in the United States and around the world face such as pollution, traffic, security, and waste management. The biggest challenge, however, is implementation.

Building the infrastructure to support a 5G network is a challenge that was stressed by not only Commissioner Rosenworcel, but also by republican Commissioner Michael O’ Reilly. O’ Reilly pointed at the need for massive investments in infrastructure for 5G, as well as the need for policies to be put in place so that new technology can be made available to the public. Rosenworcel reflected on the need for the federal government to coordinate with local governments to make 5G a reality in the United States: “No big infrastructure in the history of this country happened without making partners of those local and municipal authorities”, she said.

The United States has to tackle these infrastructure challenges while facing fierce global competition to be the first to implement a widespread 5G network. Currently, South Korea and China are leading the global competition. China especially has invested massively in 5G infrastructure. During the 4G revolution, the United States quickly jumped on board and became the leader in 4G technology—making it possible for apps such as Uber to succeed, and creating a technological boom for the United States. Now, during the 5G revolution, other countries have seen the merit of becoming the first to implement the new technology, and the U.S. is lagging behind.

According to Axios, “Mobile carriers are getting ready to roll out 5G mobile service to consumers, putting pressure on policymakers to free up airwaves, or spectrum, for the super-fast, low-delay technology.” This is demonstrated by AT&T’s recent release of their mobile 5G hotspot. Other carriers such as Verizon and T-Mobile will soon follow in creating their own 5G technologies, but it will be years until the technology will be widespread and supported by a larger 5G network.

Commissioner O’ Reilly commented on the pressure for policymakers to take action, and particularly the FCC’s need to support policies that will foster an environment for 5G technology to succeed in the U.S. “… that means providing the right environment for our U.S. carriers that make technology to feed into that to succeed”, he said, “and so that means removing barriers to entry, it means addressing the spectrum issues, and giving them the tools to then compete domestically and globally.”

Another major barrier in implementing a 5G network for the United States is spectrum, the radio frequencies used to carry cell signals that are allocated to different sectors such as the mobile industry. 5G requires more spectrum bands to be allocated to mobile companies, which is costly and could take years to implement. According to GSMA: “At the national level, even after reallocating a particular spectrum band for mobile, there is the work of migrating incumbent spectrum users… equipment manufacturers need to develop affordable devices that work seamlessly within new frequency bands. Each of these steps can take years to achieve before new spectrum can be licensed and used for mobile services.”

The White House recently called for a special task force that would coordinate with the FCC to look at “how to improve spectrum management and assess research and development priorities to create new technologies and improve United States competitiveness.” The memorandum also requests that the Secretary of Commerce develop a “National Spectrum Strategy”. This will be one step of many that the United States government needs to take in order to prepare for 5G.

Technology is evolving rapidly, and unlike during the 4G revolution, the United States is falling behind. If the U.S. wants to keep up with competing countries such as South Korea and China, it will take major policy changes, massive investment in infrastructure, and coordination between national and local governments.