Time for U.S. to Boldly Lead Into Spectrum Frontiers

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission voted to approve a bold plan to help advance U.S. competitiveness in next-generation wireless. With a clear focus on the mobile future, Chairman Tom Wheeler's Spectrum Frontiers proposal will move the U.S. into the 5G pole position--making ours the first country to unlock high-band spectrum for next generation 5G wireless networks and applications. Building on the FCC's visionary proposal, the White House also launched a $400 million Advanced Wireless Research Initiative to enable the deployment of testing platforms for advanced wireless research over the next decade. The Initiative includes additional robust investments from Federal agencies, as well as private-sector companies and associations in the U.S. wireless industry.

The result is nothing short of a game changer. High-frequency spectrum bands were long considered unusable for wireless connectivity until innovation interceded. Network advances now make it possible to harness huge swaths of spectrum to meet consumer demand for ever stronger, faster and more mobile connectivity. As Chairman Wheeler tells it, "by opening up these higher-frequency bands, we are making available more licensed spectrum for mobile than in the cumulative history of mobile spectrum allocation."

With a nimble, timely combination of smart policy and smart technology, the potential is virtually limitless. But the 5G future--at least its first wave--will center around three inter-related advancements that represent not merely a step up from 4G but a paradigm shift:

First, faster speeds: 5G connectivity will be 10-100 times faster than today's 4G LTE experience. Think about downloading an HD movie in a handful of seconds, rather than minutes.

Second, lower latency: Connectivity 'in the blink of an eye' is too slow for self-driving cars, robotic surgeons and virtual reality. Response times will move from one-hundredth of a second to an all-but-non-existent millisecond.

Third, significantly more usable spectrum: Mainstreaming high-speed, low-latency connectivity requires a massive influx of new spectrum--making Chairman Wheeler's work on higher spectrum bands mission-critical.

When it comes to unlocking this astounding new wireless potential -- and maintaining America's global mobile leadership -- the time to move is now. While the first 5G commercial deployments at scale are not expected until 2020, roughly a year after standards are expected to be issued, the race is indisputably on today with 5G trials already underway.

AT&T and Verizon started testing last fall. Google and Facebook also are evaluating the technology. But international competitors are determined not to fall behind. Abroad, Korea has promised a form of the technology in time for its hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics. Japan has made similar noise around the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Meanwhile, the European Union is pumping billions of dollars into research and development of 5G networks.

To give a sense of the scale of the challenge, one early use case being tested in the United States involves supporting one million Internet of Things devices within just one square kilometer. It's a jaw-dropping density until you factor in that when 5G becomes commercially available in 2020, Gartner forecasts a world populated by 25 billion networked devices.

Building a world of universal, uber-connectivity will require a private-sector led approach, which Chairman Wheeler has acknowledged. This is particularly crucial given that worldwide, carriers' ongoing 4G build-out may total $1.7 trillion through 2020, according to GSMA. And if past is prologue - it will be supportive policies at all levels of government that are essential to carrying this momentum into the 5G future.

The FCC's plan - reinforced by the Administration's research commitment and industry support - sets a bold course. With innovators in the private sector already heavily engaged and policymakers recognizing the urgency of the moment, it is warp speed ahead for our nation's 5G future.

Berkeley resident Jonathan Spalter, chair of Mobile Future, is a technology executive and former senior federal government national security official. He leads a coalition of technology companies/stakeholders dedicated to increasing investment and innovation in the burgeoning U.S. wireless sector.