More 5G Spectrum Coming Soon, FCC Chair Says

The FCC Chairman wants to grant U.S. companies a “home field advantage” for 5G wireless by releasing high-frequency bands

Thomas 'Tom' Wheeler, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Thomas 'Tom' Wheeler, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
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The United States will rush to make high-frequency spectrum bands available for emerging 5G technologies, promised Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in an address on Monday. Wheeler said he will share his plan for opening these bands on Thursday, with an official FCC vote scheduled for 14 July.

As Wheeler describes it, the plan, called Spectrum Frontiers, focuses on opening high-frequency bands that can provide the speedy data rates and low-latency connections necessary for potential 5G applications including remote surgery, distance learning, connected cars, and the Internet of Things. Wheeler calls it the final piece of the FCC’s efforts to open a “trifecta” of high, midrange, and low-band spectrum to industry.

If the FCC approves the plan, it will make the United States the first country in the world to open high-band spectrum for 5G and create what Wheeler calls a “home field advantage” for American companies. “And that’s damn important,” he emphasized in his speech.

Other than opening new spectrum, Wheeler says he believes the best way for the U.S. government to help 5G innovations arrive sooner is to stay out of the way. He describes this strategy as fundamentally different from that of China and the European Union, which have signed an agreement to conduct research and set standards for 5G prior to or in conjunction with commercial deployments.   

Speaking to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Wheeler cautioned against defining 5G too strictly at this stage for fear of limiting the inventiveness of industry. "If anybody tells you that they know the details of what 5G is going to become, run the other way,” he told his audience.

Even though 5G has yet to be defined by industry or government agencies, Wheeler assured listeners that its eventual deployment will deliver gobs of new wireless capabilities to companies and customers. And just as it was impossible to imagine Uber before smartphones, he says today’s wireless purveyors can’t yet comprehend what new innovations 5G might bring.

Several companies have already begun to conduct 5G field trials with new equipment such as Nokia’s AirScale, but the first commercial deployments aren’t expected until 2020. Unlike previous wireless generations, 5G networks will likely be comprised of many technologies that work in concert with each other. This makes the task of building and integrating them more complex.

That’s especially true for technologies, such as millimeter-wave radio, that have limited range. These are reliant on base stations called small cells that must be generously sprinkled throughout communities. Like many others, Wheeler anticipates a massive infrastructure build-out to accommodate the new 5G network.

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