If it’s a race we’re in for 5G, Chairman Ajit Pai’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken off the speed governor.
Just the other week, the FCC overcame another hurdle as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld its authority to curtail certain local and state barriers to the deployment of 5G infrastructure. Of all the deregulatory efforts undertaken by the Trump administration, the most consequential may well be the determined efforts of the FCC to fast-track the deployment of 5G broadband.
When it comes to the deployment of physical infrastructure, a lot of the regulations on the books at the state or municipal level are designed around older technology. Putting up a tower for 4G broadband deployment was a major project, but because of their range it was only necessary to deploy a relative handful per city. The tradeoff of 5G is that, while it will offer greatly faster connectivity, its fastest operation is at wavelengths that cannot transmit nearly as far. So while 5G cells can be quite small, it will be necessary to deploy thousands of them to reap the benefits their added speed can provide.
While some cities, like Sacramento, recognized early on that they needed to make changes to allow easier deployment of these 5G cells, many others continue to impose unreasonable fees and regulatory approval processes that might slow 5G deployment down to a glacial pace. Notably, the FCC orders upheld by the courts don’t entirely bypass local governments; rather, they shift the burden of proof onto the cities as to whether their fees are reasonable if above a given amount, and created a “shot clock” for regulatory review so that deployments can’t be tied up in local bureaucracy for years.
The urgency of getting 5G networks operational across the nation, as well as increasing broadband deployment more generally, is real. The spike in Internet activity caused by tens of millions of Americans having to connect with one another from home during the COVID-19 pandemic tested the strength of our communications infrastructure (which passed with flying colors). Yet, the acceleration towards working virtually is likely to continue, and demand is also certain to rise with the rapid increase in network-connected devices, or the “Internet of Things” (IoT).
The FCC, under Mr. Pai, has also been doing amazing work opening up new radiofrequency spectrum for use in 5G deployment, and has more yet to do under their 5G FAST Plan, if they’re allowed. For example, in addition to the several government-held spectrum bands that have been opened up so far, the FCC is speeding ahead with an auction for C-band (3.7-3.98 GHz) spectrum this December. They have also worked with the Pentagon to reach an agreement on opening up the 3.45-3.55 MHz band.
Having a variety of different wavelengths of spectrum available for 5G is crucial for full deployment, because while higher-frequency wavelengths can transmit more data over very short range (and it’s these short-range frequencies that will be most crucial to the IoT), lower frequencies allow for longer-range transmission.
After all, deploying 5G isn’t ultimately an end in itself; the benefits arise from the array of innovative technologies that will be able to take advantage of the speed and ultra-low latency it provides to devices connecting with the network. 4G powered the rise of SmartPhones and an incredible universe of apps, from Waze to mobile streaming video to telemedicine to augmented-reality games.
Similarly radical technologies that 5G could enable include drone delivery, driverless cars, more sophisticated wearable IoT devices, smart agriculture, safer rail travel, and doubtless countless inventions no one has thought up yet.
If our deployment of 5G falls too far behind our major competitors (particularly China, which has a head start) the United States may not get to be the testing ground for this wave of innovation, as we were because of our leadership in deploying 4G networks. Whereas leadership in 4G meant that the wireless industry has grown to contribute over $690 billion to U.S. gross domestic product by 2020, one estimate projects that 5G will “enable $12.3 trillion in global economic output” and “support 22 million jobs” by 2035.
Thankfully, the FCC has done its part, often in the face of stiff opposition, in ensuring that leadership in that economic growth — and those jobs — will remain centered here in the United States. They’ve done it largely by empowering industries and innovators in the best way that they can: by getting government out of the way.
• Josh Withrow is FreedomWorks’ senior policy analyst.