The high-speed data connectivity of 3G networks launched the smartphone revolution, and the step up to 4G put an incredible wealth of high-bandwidth applications — from video and navigation to health tracking — into our hands. The United States has been at forefront of these developments, reaping enormous economic and social benefits.
But as next generation 5G networks promise to again fundamentally shift how we live, work and play, our leadership is being challenged.
In leading 4G technology development, the United States was the first country to enjoy its benefits — including the massive economic impact of direct infrastructure investment, as well as increased productivity. And these benefits have been widely felt: 72 percent of Americans now own a mobile device connected to a broadband network, according to a recent Telecommunications Industry Association consumer survey.
Now, significant questions exist about our ability to continue this progress with 5G. Can we build a framework for the telecommunications industry to invest in new and evolving technologies? Is there sufficient and suitable spectrum to support 5G applications? Do we need to accelerate efforts to develop 5G definitions and standards?
Recently the Federal Communications Commission took one step toward maintaining the United States’ innovative leadership by considering “flexible use” rules for high bands of spectrum likely to be used for 5G. We applaud the FCC’s efforts, but will this be enough?
We think it’s time for regulators, policymakers and other stakeholders to pursue a clear and comprehensive strategic road map that addresses these questions.
And the stakes are high. A world of smart devices and connected machines will place diverse demands on networks, with different applications requiring varying amounts of bandwidth, latency (or response time), and distance, while utilizing multiple spectrum bands and even different radio technologies.
Some new technologies will be needed to meet these demands. In a recent survey, the TIA found 74 percent of wireless operators believe 5G system architectures will be substantially or radically different from today’s networks.
To be clear, 5G isn’t simply about enabling faster media downloads, nor is it just about connecting people — it’s about enabling the transformational power of the Internet of Things. Once 5G makes networks faster, more reliable and connected to more relevant data, those networks will enable the economy to run more efficiently while improving lives in ways we never thought possible.
Recognizing this, the U.S. telecommunications industry is rapidly innovating and investing in new technologies, including an increased focus on spectrum sharing and small cell technologies. But technological progress is only part of the solution. The successful deployment of 5G will demand progress with — and cooperation between — technology, spectrum and standards.
To facilitate the multi-band connectivity that the Internet of Things will demand, the U.S. must have a national spectrum policy based on predictable allocations, technology-neutral principles, and appropriate timeframes.
We’ve made progress toward those goals, although more must be done. A recent auction of federally held airwaves opened more than 50 MHz of spectrum for commercial mobile broadband on a shared basis, and the FCC will soon conduct a voluntary incentive auction which may open an additional 84 megahertz. In addition to Thursday’s action on high band spectrum, the FCC has also opened more spectrum to unlicensed uses in the 5 gigahertz band and is opening 150 MHz in the 3.5 GHz band currently shared with government users.
Meanwhile, industry is actively focusing on the standards work needed to create a global ecosystem for 5G. But as our country ramps up toward 5G, governments in other parts of the world have already launched efforts to take the lead, with both Korea and Japan planning 5G projects in conjunction with their respective Olympic games in 2018 and 2020. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that 71 percent of operators in the TIA’s recent survey said Asia will play the lead role in 5G development and deployment.
So we must act. It’s time for U.S. policymakers to make 5G a national priority and work with industry to ensure the U.S. remains at the forefront of wireless technology development and standardization. We need support for research and development through tax policies, the development of a spectrum pipeline and a continued commitment from policymakers to help industry bring new spectrum access and other technologies to market.
Within industry, we will continue to accelerate collaborative efforts to invest in new technologies, develop forward-looking spectrum capabilities and support 5G standardization work. By quickly making progress in these areas, the U.S. can gain ground in the global race to 5G — unlocking the potential of the Internet of Things and transforming our economy and society for the benefit of all.
Scott Belcher is CEO of the Telecommunications Industry Association.