An Unusual Level of Coordination on Fifth Generation Wireless

Commercial versions of fifth generation (5G) wireless service are expected within three years.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), wireless service providers, wireless equipment manufacturers and even the US Congress are collaborating to make it a success for consumers and the economy.

It is important for the US to be an early developer and leader in 5G because the technology will spawn a services and equipment market worth $1.9 trillion in 2026.  A recent study shows that simply building the network will boost the economy by $533 billion and require three million labor years. In addition, 5G promises over $1.2 Trillion in consumer benefits.

The FCC has announced the first 11 GHz of high frequency bandwidth suitable for 5G applications.  The FCC chose to locate 5G in spectrum regions that are uncluttered by applications that are difficult to move (e.g. military, first responders, or TV usage).

Of the 11GHz, 7GHz of unlicensed spectrum is located in a band between 64GHz and 71GHz.  It is anticipated that the 7GHz will be used much as the unlicensed Wi-Fi bands are today.  That will allow for innovations and competition.   The FCC will become more specific about the licensing and usage rules for the 3.85GHz it plans to place near 28GHZ, 37GHz and 39GHz bands.

In the early days, applications of 5G technology will look much like those in 4G.  Verizon said it would use 5G technology to deliver home broadband to test customers in 11 U.S. markets during 2017.  However, 5G allows these familiar applications to be delivered more efficiently, using “smaller antennas that can attach to lampposts.”  That obviates the need for huge towers and reduces cost.  Also, 5G technology will drive down the delays (latency) with which two devices communicate, allowing for almost instantaneous reactions.  This will be crucial in uses such as the operation of driverless cars, as Huawei has showcased.

To better illustrate the advantages that 5G delivers, major wireless equipment makers are looking at novel applications.  China Mobile Ltd will show how ambulances can use 5G to stream patient X-rays to emergency rooms as they race toward hospitals.  For the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Ericsson with KT Corp and Intel Corp are building a 5G network that will guide self-driving buses through the athletes village and let fans experience the live action from tiny cameras embedded in the helmets of bobsledders.  Ericsson is also working with Korea Telecom and Nokia Oyj to see their first large-scale commercial deployments of 5G in 2020.

The 5G networks are likely to be paired with Internet of Things (IoT) clusters.  Unfortunately, inadequate security or no security at all has plagued early examples of the IoT.  Wireless-connected cameras, sensors, and other simple devices have been hijacked by hackers and focused to form a distributed denial of service attack that damaged services from Dyn, Twitter, Spotify, Reddit and others.  The IoT devices were operating without proper password arrangements and other security tools.  Unless that widespread flaw is cured, it will slow investors willingness to deploy 5G.

To address this key issue, the  bipartisan “IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017” would use the government’s buying power to signal the basic level of security that IoT devices sold to the federal government will need to have.  The bill would require that Internet-connected devices be patched when security updates are available, and it would preclude the use of unchangeable passwords.  Vendors will be required to ensure the devices are free from known vulnerabilities when sold.  These security measures will likely propagate from government IoTs into commercial IoTs, but with some variations for networks that are intentionally “air gapped” for national security reasons.

5G has a lot of potential. It is encouraging to see the FCC, industry, and Congress coordinating on a common goal that will benefit consumers.

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