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The FCC will start to make 5G a reality this week

The FCC will start to make 5G a reality this week

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For years we've been hearing that super-fast 5G wireless is on the way. This week, the Federal Communications Commission will start to make that happen.

On Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler will circulate a proposal to kick off 5G wireless proceedings. If passed, the commission will begin to identify and open up swaths of high-band spectrum, which is capable of delivering data at much higher speeds than what's currently used for 4G and LTE.

The US could be "the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G"

"If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications," Wheeler intends to say in a speech this afternoon. "And that’s damn important because it means US companies will be first out of the gate."

Wheeler wants to be very clear that the FCC is not defining 5G. In fact, there's still no 5G standard. As Wheeler puts it, "If anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way."

So what exactly is the FCC's plan? Wheeler basically wants to leave it up to the market, as the commission did for 4G before it. The commission will open up a bunch of new wireless spectrum — which is what companies like AT&T and Verizon use to beam data from their towers to your cellphones — and then leave phone companies and other competitors to do what they'd like with it. The commission is pretty sure it'll all work out.

"Unlike some countries, we do not believe we should spend the next couple of years studying what 5G should be, how it should operate, and how to allocate spectrum, based on those assumptions," Wheeler's prepared remarks say. "...Instead, we will make ample spectrum available and then rely on a private sector-led process for producing technical standards best suited for those frequencies and use cases."

Wheeler envisions speeds of 10 to 100 times current wireless

Even though the FCC won't formally define 5G, Wheeler is putting out his own ideas for what it should be able to offer. Broadly speaking: far faster speeds. He says 5G should be "like mobile fiber," offering speeds 10 to 100 times faster than what mobile offers today.

Wheeler also calls for increased responsiveness, so that commands can be issued in less than one millisecond. That's critical, he says, for applications like remote surgery: "The surgeon’s scalpel needs to be immediately responsive, not a blink later."

The proposal would also open up a large amount of high-speed unlicensed spectrum. Whereas most of the new 5G spectrum will be leased out to wealthy companies, this unlicensed area will be open to use by anyone. That's essentially what Wi-Fi is — so you can imagine this proposal also leading to much faster Wi-Fi speeds than what we get today.

There are major hurdles that 5G will have to overcome

As exciting as 5G is, it comes with some major technical hurdles. Signals for 5G won't be able to travel very far and won't be great at penetrating buildings. That means they'll require extensive cell tower deployment — which will be time consuming and expensive. New technologies will also be needed to let mobile devices keep track of 5G signals, which may need to be steered and aimed, rather than blanketing an area the way traditional wireless technologies have.

Some work has already started on all of this. Verizon recently began 5G tests, and AT&T intends to begin outdoor 5G tests over the summer. We've also seen 5G work from Google, Samsung, and a startup called Starry. This is all necessary to make 5G actually happen. They're the ones that'll have to overcome 5G's limitations and — hopefully — eventually land on a standard that'll make devices interoperable.

That's all still a few years out, at the earliest. But this week's actions by the FCC signal that it's moving toward reality. The commission will vote on Wheeler's proposal at a meeting next month. If it passes — and it likely will — the commission will then move toward opening up spectrum. That process, which will be called the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding, could also take several years. But Wheeler notes that the first 5G deployments are expected to be ready for 2020. And he doesn't seem to want the FCC to be the one holding that up.