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FCC votes to begin working toward 5G wireless networks

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In a unanimous vote this morning, the Federal Communications Commission approved a plan to begin readying the United States for 5G wireless networks.

The proceedings will lead to the commission opening up airwaves that allow for faster data speeds; rights to those airwaves will then be auctioned off to companies like AT&T and Verizon. The FCC expects the first 5G networks to go live four years from now, in 2020.

"I do believe this is one of the — if not the — most important decision this agency will make this year," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

"Mr. Chairman, just what is 5G?"

With this vote, the US can begin moving in earnest toward 5G wireless. There are two parts of the equation that still have to unfold. The FCC has to complete the plans it's laying out today and open up high-speed airwaves to businesses; and wireless companies have to develop the technology that makes 5G work. Most of the big names are already at work on that, and some — like AT&T and Verizon — are already beginning tests.

What we still don't know is specifically what 5G will do for us. It'll be faster, of course — the question is, exactly how fast will that be? Wheeler says it'll be capable of delivering 10 to 100 times the speed of currently wireless networks, but that's a huge range. The reality likely depends on how mobile carriers decide to put 5G airwaves to work. Like 4G and LTE before it, expect 5G to exist somewhere the forthcoming technical papers' grandiose promises and what we have today.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joked about this lack of certainty in her opening remarks. Turning to Wheeler, she said, "Mr. Chairman, just what is 5G?" You'll have to trust me on this, but it was very funny. "I'm willing to bet that your answer to the question 'What is 5G' will be different from the person sitting next to you, and to the next, and to the next," Clyburn elaborated. "What we can agree is that the next wireless revolution promises to change the way we live, interact, and engage with our communities."

This proceeding also opens up the door for much higher speed Wi-Fi. Although that, likewise, will require technical advancements before it can be put to use.