How Can the US Win at 5G?

5G deployment will be key to many next-gen technologies. But experts say America is lagging behind unless regulators can take the right steps.
Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, spoke at MWCA 2018 about the need for improved regulation around 5G. (Image source: Mobile World Congress) 

5G will be a key enabler for autonomous cars, the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT), smarter and faster artificial intelligence, and the push toward smart cities. But that's only if regulators can either get on board or get out of the way. The need for regulator support behind 5G was the main focus behind the opening keynote of Mobile World Congress Americas (MWCA) 2018 in Los Angeles. And while some of that support is already there, plenty of challenges lie ahead.

According to a report released in April by CTIA, a trade association representing the US wireless communications industry, the US is among the top four countries leading the world in “5G readiness.” Yet it currently sits at number three, lagging behind China at number one (holding a “narrow lead,” according to CTIA) and South Korea holding second place. The US is ahead of Japan, which currently sits in fourth place.

Speaking at MWCA, Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, stressed the need for the US to lead the 5G race. Baker was optimistic, noting that a year ago, there were no 5G deployments planned in the United Sates—compared to this year, where the first 5G deployments are beginning. Three mobile carriers—Verizon, Spring, and T-Mobile—are planning to launch 5G networks in Los Angeles alone. She said that by 2019, 50 cities across the US will have 5G. “Thank goodness we Americans hate to lose,” she noted.

Speaking as part of the keynote, Sunil Bharti Mittal, chairman of GSMA—a trade organization that represents mobile network operators and organizes Mobile World Congress—was much bolder in his criticisms of how government regulations are obstructing the proliferation of 5G. “Regulators need to be much more sympathetic to the fundamental building blocks of this entire ecosystem,” Mittal said, adding that the mobile industry is taxed at a level comparable to tobacco if one factors in all of the spectrum charges, auctions, and license fees. “This is the most heavily taxed industry in the world...This industry moves the GDP of the world by five percent. And yet it becomes the punching bag for most regulators and finance ministers to grab easy money.”

During her portion of the keynote, Baker called for the FCC to modernize federal rules around 5G and give clear direction to localities for procedures and fees around the technology. “We are competing with nations that approve new wireless sites in weeks or days", she said, noting that it took 30 years for the country to build the 150,000 towers for today's networks. She noted that 5G will require five times as much, but we don't have 30 years to wait.

Let the Spectrum Auctions Begin

Key to the US winning the 5G race will be policies adopted by Congress, the Presidential Administration, and the FCC. “Policymakers are critical to our success...that we have the ability and resources to meet more communities,” Baker said. “Congress, the FCC, and the administration know we can't afford to lose this race. And it starts with spectrum.”

The country will need hundreds of megahertz of new wireless spectrum opened up to facilitate 5G communications. In August, the FCC announced that it had established application and bidding procedures for the first 5G spectrum auctions in the US, covering licenses in the 28 GHz (27.5-28.35 GHz) and 24 GHz (24.25-24.45 and 24.75-25.25 GHz) bands. The FCC says bidding for the 28 GHz UMFUS licenses will commence on November 14, 2018, with bidding for the 24 GHz licenses to commence at a later date after the 28 GHz auction concludes.

In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission is planning more auctions in 2019. “In the second half of 2019, we intend to hold an auction of three more millimeter-wave spectrum bands: 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz,” Pai said. “Between that auction and the auctions for which we establish procedures today, we’ll push almost 5 GHz of spectrum into the commercial marketplace over the course of the next 17 months.” Pai said the FCC is also looking to reform its infrastructure rules to be friendlier to small-cell and fiber-based networks. “These are the kinds of aggressive actions we need to take to promote innovation, investment, and United States leadership in 5G,” he said.

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