The global race to be first to market with 5G is critical to our nation’s economic and national security. 5G—the fifth generation of wireless mobile internet connectivity—will greatly accelerate the speed and amount of data downloads onto your smart devices. Although the earliest wave of this technology will be driven by smartphones, ultrafast 5G downloads and uploads will gain significant traction in other domains including autonomous vehicles, factory automation, remote health care, security and surveillance, smart cities and gaming.
The quantum leap from 4 to 5G will be extraordinary. While 4G can connect almost 2,000 devices per square kilometer, 5G could support up to 1 million in the same area with download speeds 10 to 20 times faster than 4G—and without the congestive latency of today’s broadband. Imagine downloading a full-length HD movie onto your smartphone in seven seconds instead of seven minutes. This new wave of wireless technology has already been beta tested with a high degree of success so far, including last year’s Olympic Games in South Korea. In addition, pilot projects are being rolled out by American telecoms AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon using cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Sacramento as test beds.
Our international competitors are also racing to be first to market with 5G broadband. Contenders include China (Huawei and ZTE), Japan (Sony), South Korea (Samsung), Germany (Deutsche Telecom) and Finland (Nokia). Make no mistake: this is a desperate street fight for technological superiority. If 4G is any guide, the significance of being the world’s leader in 5G cannot be understated—especially in terms of setting global standards.
To better grasp how we arrived here, it is important to understand the evolutionary arch of mobile communication technologies, beginning in 1979 when Nippon Telephone and Telegraph introduced the first-generation network that enabled voice communications. This was followed by 2G in the 1990s and 2000s which—in addition to voice—gave us email, text, data, mobile internet and streaming. In 2004, 3G afforded us web browsing, video calling, TV streaming and added mobility. 2010 saw 4G and long-term evolution (LTE) networks advance high-quality voice over internet protocol (VOIP), HD multimedia streaming, HD video conferencing, 3D gaming and worldwide roaming.
4G’s swifter transmission of data enabled Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet, Netflix and Google to develop killer applications and become Wall Street darlings. Uber, Snapchat and Airbnb platforms also emerged because America was on the technological forefront of expanding the broadband pipeline. According to a recent study by CTIA, a wireless trade association in Washington, D.C., America’s leadership in 4G generated $125 billion in additional economic activity.
5G will be even more transformative. Remote telemedicine will enable doctors to deliver more personalized care using virtual reality and videoconferencing to check on their homebound patients more frequently. In manufacturing, 5G-enabled virtual and augmented reality solutions will shepherd in a new era of insourcing of U.S. production from overseas as manufacturing today is less about labor arbitrage and more about technological prowess. In the mobility sector, 5G will enable self-driving cars to talk with other vehicles on the road—orchestrating an uninterrupted, real-time swarm of data about a driver’s environment. This technology will vastly improve driver safety while lessening crash fatalities.
Bringing 5G to market is not without challenges. This so-called wireless network requires, well, lots of wire in the form of fiber-optic cable buried underground. Ponder the irony, but 5G implies much wider bandwidth which necessitates more towers wired to the internet. According to the Wall Street Journal, the build-out gets even more complicated. Where 2-4G are supported by large towers that can reach long distances, the short range, higher-frequency radio waves used by 5G networks must have smaller cells placed about 800 to 1,000 feet apart. Last year, the U.S. had around 350,000 cell sites. 5G will require an additional 420,000.
It gets worse: Even if the multi-billion-dollar infrastructural network required to enable 5G existed today, the mid-band frequency and capacity to transmit data are being monopolized by the U.S. Department of Defense for security purposes. And there are also concerns about cybersecurity. By its very nature, wider bandwidths pose wider security challenges for cyber thieves bent on intruding into your computer network, installing malware and poaching your company’s IP, proprietary data and other trade secrets.
While there is a lot of hype surrounding 5G today, it must be tempered by the immutable constraints of full-scale implementation. Like any other major innovation, the progression of 5G will be incremental at best. To be sure, its entire promise may not be completely realized until it is fully deployed over the next decade or so. In the meantime, the race to the top among the world’s leading nations will continue to accelerate the development of 5G for the benefit of all.
Hastening the development process in the U.S will require an added sense of urgency among American policymakers to pave away hurdles standing in its way (i.e., expanding the communications infrastructure, widening the bandwidth and guarding our networks against cyberattacks). For starters, Washington should align itself more closely with the private sector’s push to quicken the pace of rolling out 5G to the marketplace. While other countries competing in the 5G space have stronger private-public sector partnerships (and longer-term strategies), U.S. telecoms are fragmented, work in isolation and do not share information with one another in their quest to corner the market entirely for themselves.
Banding together in a coordinated fashion in this one narrow instance would help secure U.S. global dominance in this important field. This may smack of an industrial policy to free market purists, but it is imperative if our nation is to remain at the forefront of this critical technology. By pooling resources together and achieving economies of scale, domestic telecoms would be able to dominate the U.S. market and, for that matter, the world market, too. The good news is that we are beginning to see some industry consolidation that may remedy the lack of knowledge sharing among telecom rivals with the proposed takeover of Sprint by T-Mobile. While a step in the right direction, more action is needed if we aspire to become the global leader in 5G