FAQ: What the FCC’s 5G vote will mean

The FCC on Thursday will vote to identify and open new high frequency bands for use in the forthcoming 5G wave of wireless technology, clearing the way for development to continue on the next big jump in mobile data capabilities.

The FCC on Thursday will vote to identify and open new high frequency bands for use in the forthcoming 5G wave of wireless technology, clearing the way for development to continue on the next big jump in mobile data capabilities.


Netflix and Pokemon Go, mostly.

Not exactly. Pokemon Go doesn’t use much data.

Fine. It’s actually because FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler decided that now is the time to start the ball rolling on the process, which has been delayed in the past. Standards bodies and industry have begun to make noise on 5G of late, which means it’s probably a good thing that regulators like the FCC are getting in on the act.

What does the vote actually do?

For one thing, it’s important to be clear about what the vote doesn’t do – define any technical standards for how 5G technology is actually going to work. That task falls to the 3GPP standards body and to the wireless industry in general.

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For its part, 3GPP recently issued a call to the telecom companies to get to work on the over-the-air specification for 5G, saying that it would freeze the standard as of June 2018 in order to allow OEMs to have devices ready for 5G’s planned 2020 roll-out.

And the industry has already begun to respond, as Verizon became the first U.S. carrier to publish a proposed 5G spec mere days ago, partnering with Samsung and Korean cellular provider KT.

All the vote on Thursday will actually do is start the ball rolling on designating frequencies for 5G usage and opening them to use by companies deploying that technology.

Which frequencies?

It’s unclear – part of the process that the FCC’s vote is going to kick off is the identification of which frequencies are going to be used for 5G communication. A test 5G network used 15GHz spectrum, but there’s a wide range of frequencies that could be useful. High frequencies, of 15GHz and above, will be used to provide high-speed connectivity in dense areas, but lower frequencies, which propagate better over long distances, will likely still be needed.

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Who’s happy about this?

Most of the industry, really – the FCC’s move will clear up a big part of the uncertainty around what a future 5G standard might look like, opening the way for more meaningful development and a better understanding of what 2020’s 5G gizmos will do for us.

What about elsewhere?

Well, it’s a little more complicated in Europe. An industry consortium led by Nokia, BT and Vodafone, among others, published a manifesto this week calling for the relaxation of Europe’s Net Neutrality regulations as a precondition to the development of 5G on the continent, saying that the strict prohibition on paid prioritization for internet traffic makes it difficult to guarantee returns on investment in 5G infrastructure.

Strictly speaking, of course, that’s true – it would, indeed, be a lot easier to guarantee better ROIs if telecom companies were allowed to engage in whichever anticompetitive and unfair practices they wanted. But actually delaying investment in 5G runs the risk of letting Europe fall behind the U.S. and Asia in terms of infrastructure. “Counterproductive” is probably the polite word.

So you said 2020 for 5G earlier…

Yep, 2020 is about when it seems safe to expect commercial 5G to hit the market. Look for potential gigabit speeds to enable a wide range of new capabilities, from higher-def live video, telemedicine, and an array of new connected device types.

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