Wireless broadband networks are now as much a critical part of America’s infrastructure as roads, bridges, rail lines and airports.
Issues related to emerging technology received scant mention in the presidential election campaign. Therefore, it’s not surprising that many in the tech community now find themselves wondering about what the incoming Trump administration will have in store for this important industry. One critical tech challenge that will require immediate attention from the new leadership is the need for government action to maintain momentum in building faster, more capable mobile networks for internet access.
When we hear about the need to rebuild or improve America’s infrastructure, we usually think about roads, bridges, rail lines and airports. But in today’s connected world, wireless broadband networks are now a critical part of our core infrastructure.
Smartphones and other wireless devices have become platforms for everything from commerce and entertainment to news and social connections. And the popularity of mobile broadband is driving a seemingly insatiable demand for wireless connectivity that will stress today’s networks.
If we want to sustain economic growth and maintain global leadership in wireless, these networks need investment just as much as our physical assets. To make the challenge even more urgent, while demand for physical assets grows linearly, demand for wireless network capacity has grown — and will continue to grow — exponentially.
Fortunately, we are on the cusp of a technological revolution that can meet the challenge of keeping our wireless infrastructure up to date. The next-generation wireless standard — 5G — will deliver dramatic increases in both performance and capacity for mobile communications.
New spectrum for a new standard
This summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to lay the groundwork for 5G by opening a big chunk of spectrum located above 24GHz for mobile networks. The FCC noted that by being the first country to make high-frequency spectrum available for mobile use, the U.S. had taken a vital step in insuring that it will retain global leadership in wireless innovation.
But what is the big deal about this new spectrum? First, some background.
Starting in the early 1980s, the U.S. and the rest of the world have moved about every 10 years from one generation of mobile wireless network standards to the next, with each new generation providing greater capacity and important new capabilities. The first generation, 1G, supported just analog voice phone calls. 2G moved to digital voice, and 3G added data transmission. The current standard, 4G, which was introduced at the beginning of this decade, brought true broadband data support, making possible applications like streaming video on mobile devices.
Although the 5G standard will not be fully defined until the end of this decade, there is already great interest in its ability to provide another large increase in performance. In fact, advocates of 5G have stated that its objective is nothing less than to provide users with “perceived infinite capacity.”
How will it accomplish this lofty goal? The new standard will incorporate advances in digital hardware and software that will improve efficiency. But the most distinctive innovation of 5G will be its reliance, for the first time, on extremely high-frequency millimeter wave (mmW) spectrum bands.
Up till now, mobile communications have exclusively used low- and medium-frequency airwaves that can travel relatively long distances and can penetrate into buildings, while mmW bands have faced propagation challenges. But recent technological innovations have overcome this limitation, transforming what were formerly seen as drawbacks of mmW into potential advantages that could hold the key to vastly increased performance and capacity.
Smaller is better
In particular, the single most important factor in increasing wireless capacity is the ability to shrink the size of individual cells, making it possible for multiple users to use the same spectrum without interfering with each other. Because high-frequency signals are short-range (line-of-sight), cells that use mmW will be very small — perhaps just a few feet in diameter, compared to several thousand feet for conventional cell towers we’re used to seeing.
Instead of a few hundred thousand towers that currently provide cell service across the U.S., 5G will likely involve the installation of millions of “micro-cells,” including, quite possibly, multiple cells within a single building, capable of supporting many more users with data speeds up to 200 times faster than current 4G networks.
The FCC will have an important continuing role in making this new spectrum available for mobile uses. But much more remains to be done to realize the promise of mmW. The hardware and software needed to make use of this spectrum is still in its infancy. New chipsets will have to be designed to process these new signals. Sending and receiving mmW signals will require entirely new kinds of antennas that will have to be crammed inside of tiny mobile handsets. Large investments will be needed to upgrade networks to 5G. And building and managing networks with a vastly larger number of micro-cells will pose formidable technical and operational challenges.
In fact, the logistical issues around deploying 5G may prove to be more critical than the technical issues. Beyond the role of the federal government, state and local leaders will be involved in ensuring ease of access, timeliness and cost efficiency for the deployment of large number of small 5G cells in their communities. One factor motivating local officials to act expeditiously: The recognition that a robust wireless infrastructure can give their communities a competitive advantage over their neighbors.
We have already begun to see a flurry of experimentation to prepare for 5G deployment. Many countries, including the U.S., are building test beds to evaluate 5G services in the real world. And many carriers have announced plans to start deploying 5G components even before the standard is completed in 2020.
We will have to wait and see what the future holds as these innovations mature, but one thing is certain: President-elect Trump’s administration, the agency heads he appoints, and thousands of state and local public officials across the country will have critical roles in helping nurture this new technology.
Richard Adler is a noted futurist and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif. He has spent more than two decades tracking key technological, demographic, and economic trends and exploring their implications for companies, organizations and society. Reach him @reallyrichard.