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Opening the 5G wireless frontier

By Bret Swanson | July 14, 2016
The FCC will make a crucial decision on the future of wireless networks this week

The new spectrum being considered is located at much higher frequencies — at 28, 37, 39 GHz and beyond. Higher frequencies have strengths and weaknesses.

They can transmit more data, but the signals don’t travel as far. The higher frequencies will thus be crucial to deliver rich new services to billions of new devices, but they will also require the construction of new networks. These new networks will be composed of millions of new small cells, often hundreds of meters apart, to complement the existing network of cell towers, which are kilometers apart.  

The key to the higher frequencies is their immense bandwidth. Bandwidth is the defining constraint on information transmission. More bandwidth, more data.

All of today’s mobile signals are crammed into just more than 500 MHz of bandwidth. But it’s possible that just one of the new higher-frequency bands could offer that much. Taken as a whole, the new high-frequency airwaves could possibly quintuple the amount of spectrum available for mobile and wireless broadband. 

The FCC order is a big step in the right direction. As usual, however, some firms are asking for special favors, hoping to steer the proceeding away from simple, neutral rules and toward complicated bureaucracy.

They are attempting to block competitors from acquiring new spectrum, which could delay the arrival of 5G networks and thwart a vast array of new services. The FCC should thus resist the temptation to apportion spectrum to particular firms based on political favor. 

Connected cars, virtual reality, mobile health and the internet of things will depend on wireless networks that are faster and more reliable, capacious and ubiquitous than today’s. 5G networks are a crucial foundation for the next 25 years of U.S. innovation. If we get spectrum policy wrong, the whole economy will lag.  

Bret Swanson is president of Entropy Economics LLC and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy.

 

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