With officials in the Trump Administration reportedly considering taking over the nation’s nascent 5G network because of fears the U.S. will fall behind, LedeTree takes a look at where the private sector is in the move toward 5G without government help
David Royse | LedeTree
Officials in the Trump Administration are reportedly concerned that the U.S. won’t move to the next generation of wireless technology fast enough to keep up with the Chinese, and there were reports over the weekend that some in the administration want the government to build out the network – essentially nationalizing it, as the government did with highways in the last century.
But widespread skepticism and flat-out opposition to the idea erupted nearly immediately after it was reported, with opponents ranging from President Trump’s appointed chairman of the FCC to companies that have already been spending money on developing the next generation infrastructure privately.
“The main lesson to draw from the wireless sector’s development over the past three decades—including American leadership in 4G—is that the market, not government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said. “Any federal effort to construct a nationalized 5G network would be a costly and counterproductive distraction from the policies we need to help the United States win the 5G future.”
“The wireless industry agrees that winning the race to 5G is a national priority,” Meredith Attwell Baker, the president of the CTIA, which represents wireless carriers, said in a statement. “The government should pursue the free market policies that enabled the U.S. wireless industry to win the race to 4G.”
The industry is very, very bullish on the need to move quickly to a new technology – that is to say, few doubt that big players in the internet service world will drag their feet if they can help it. There’s too much money to be made. And any obstacles they’d face in moving toward implementing the new generation network might not go away if the federal government were doing it, either.
“People have either invested already in roadmaps or are very close to significant investments,” wireless industry expert Chetan Sharma said in the above-linked story from Axios. “Nationalizing a band without significant input will obviously create a lot of turmoil in the industry.”
But where is the private sector on that investment? Let’s take a look at where we are on this.
AT&T announced in early January that it expects to be the first U.S. company to introduce 5G mobile service, with plans to be in 12 markets by the end of 2018.
“In addition to plans for offering mobile 5G to consumers this year, we expect to trial 5G technology with businesses of all sizes across industries to help them to transform business operations and create more engaging experiences for their customers,” AT&T said in that announcement.
Some background you need, however: wireless providers have been criticized for capitalizing on confusion about the technology, which most people aren’t that familiar with. AT&T, for example, announced last year that users in several cities would be getting 5G speed – but, they weren’t actually getting real, 5G technology – only sped up versions of the old technology. Engadget explained what AT&T did in this story, noting that it was announcing a move before the industry had even settled on the first standards for the new 5G technology. Verizon made a similar effort to get out ahead of the hype, even before the standards were put in place.
The first of those standards have now been agreed on, though, and the push continues.
Still, AT&T and Verizon say they’ll be delivering some sort of limited 5G plan this year.
Verizon says that in the second half of 2018, it will offer home wireless (fixed in your house, not on your cellphone) in three to five markets.
A third company, T-Mobile, argues it actually will be the first to offer full, real 5G, because it plans to have a “true, nationwide 5G” network in the next few years, rather than in just some places.
“This is huge, because we’re committing to making something nationwide, not hot spots,” said T-Mobile CEO John Legere, interestingly attired in this video news release from last May.
“Unlike the other guys I’m not claiming that this is right around the corner this year or next,” Legere said last year. “But it will be here in the next two to three years.”
THE ACTUAL INFRASTRUCTURE PROBLEM
Besides the standards, another thing that may help companies implement 5G is interest within government – particularly in the FCC – in helping clear the way for the more robust network, primarily by making it easier for them to put in place more “small cells,” or essentially, cells that serve a small area such as a couple of city blocks, rather than the large cells up on towers that have a much larger range. Those small cells are a big key to the success of 5G. Companies that are trying to upgrade the infrastructure are asking the FCC to help them with local governments, which in some cases have regulations and fees the companies say hinder their efforts.
In fact, if there’s something keeping private companies from building out a 5G system, it’s more likely to be local opposition than any technical difficulty, or even money. If the federal government were to step in and try to take over the build out of the 5G network, it would face some of the same obstacles.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
There’s interest in 5G for a variety of reasons – one is how much it will enhance and allow the interconnectivity of devices, a concept known as the Internet of Things.
T-Mobile’s Legere points to personal uses that will be enabled by the upgraded connectivity.
“Sensors that will enable us to LoJack everything and never lose our stuff again,” Legere says. “Ear pieces that translate in real time and literally erase language barriers…. We can’t even imagine all the cool stuff that’s coming.”
But it’s also a critical part of the move toward autonomous vehicle technology.
From AT&T’s statement in early January: “We expect future 5G technologies will eventually allow future driverless vehicles to make real-time decisions based on information that goes beyond the individual sensors onboard the vehicle itself. Vehicles will be able to ‘see’ around corners, through other vehicles, and at longer distances. This will enable vehicles to quickly make sense of their environment and help guide safe operations on the road.
“That’s what we mean about 5G unlocking a new level of experiences beyond just speed,” AT&T says.
More broadly, the same interconnectivity that could allow vehicle to vehicle communication and vehicle to thing communication could be used in a number of ways to make cities smarter, engineers believe.
YOU WANT THE SPEED? YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE SPEED
Another consideration is how many devices will be able to use 5G once it comes. Technology research firm Gartner says that while 5G enabled phones will hit the market next year, it estimated that fewer than 10 percent of devices will support the technology even in 2019.
Qualcomm recently said, however, along with several Chinese telecom companies that it plans to be able to introduce 5G-ready devices as early as 2019.