FCC Votes To Open Up Super-Speedy Airwaves For Future 5G Wireless Broadband

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

Boy, the future sounds great… at least according to the Federal Communications Commission. From medicine to manufacturing and music, the future’s got a level of autonomy and connected convenience that makes Star Trek look downright pedestrian. And it’s all down to policy that lets tech develop, of course — and so the FCC this morning voted unanimously to take the first step to open up new ultra-fast, super-speedy mobile broadband… for whenever it comes.

5G is, of course, still not quite an actual standard or, indeed, an actual thing. Some of its implications are evident, but the actual way we’re going to get there is still very much up in the air. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn alluded to as much in her remarks:

“I’m going to ask a question that might seem odd coming from this side of the bench,” Clyburn began.

“Mr. Chairman,” she asked rhetorically, “Just what is 5g?”

MORE: But what even is 5G? How does it work? Why does it matter?

She continued, “I’m willing to bet that your answer to the question ‘what is 5G’ would be different from the person sitting next to you, and the next person, and the next. Nonetheless, what we do know, and can all agree, is that the next wireless evolution promise to fundamentally change the way we live, interact, and engage with our communities.”

Clyburn rattled off a long list of potential applications of the technology, from smart appliances to wired roads and nearly self-aware factories. But she also included a call to make sure that the whole nation can actually participate:

“Let’s not forget that there are pockets in this nation where people are still living in a 2G and 3G reality. They include the underserved and the unserved who are just as anxious to reap the benefits” of the future as everyone else. And as actual 5G technologies are developed and put in place, she said, regulators and industry need to be sure to keep every population equally in mind.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, gave something of a space-race feel to her remarks, saying, “The race to 5G is on.”

“The world wireless economies are busy planning for 5G,” she explained. “South Korea and Japans have plans to deploy 5G services by the time they hold the Olympics in 2018 and 2020. Earlier this year the European Commission announced work on a 5G action plan, in addition to work they are doing with China.”

The implication was clear: 5G wireless tech is a global competition that the United States needs to win.

Rosenworcel also cited a need to work on “the ground as well as the skies,” calling out the unsexy reality of all the terrestrial infrastructure that needs to be built in order to “take us to infinity and beyond.”

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who usually specializes in lengthy disagreements with all of Wheeler’s proposals, ended up in the unusual position of generally endorsing a high-profile NPRM. Pai disagreed with the cybersecurity provisions of the order, saying that the FCC “lack[s] the expertise and authority to dive headlong into this issue … these are issues best left to security experts to handle in a more comprehensive way.”

Still, even Pai was generally pleased that most of his suggestions were taken seriously and in some way incorporated. “None of the concerns I’ve just expressed overshadow the merits of the broader compromised we reached today,” Pai concluded, “So I will concur with these portions of the decision.”

He also pointed out that the entire proceeding, from first proposal to today’s adoption, took less than two years — and “in the regulatory context, that’s moving at the speed of light.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who generally disagrees even more volubly than Pai with the FCC’s highest-profile agenda items, also found himself mostly agreeing, dissenting only with two areas of the rule.

Since we don’t know what 5G is yet, O’Rielly argued, we it’s madness to include any kind of caps or limits on the spectrum available to it. “We do not hav a consistent definition of 5G, as my colleagues highlighted. A full understanding of what services will be offered or any idea of how much spectrum is needed to achieve the capacity, speed, and latency goals for particular spectrum bands [and yet] we adopt this foolish policy anyway.”

O’Rielly also objected to the same cybersecurity language as his colleague, commissioner Pai.

Wheeler, as chairman, spoke last as always. He called this rule “one of the, if not the most important, decision[s] this agency will make this year,” a big statement about a commission that’s been very busy in recent years.

“By becoming the first nation to identify high-band spectrum, the United States is ushering in the 5G era of high-capacity, high-speed, low-latency wireless networks. By not getting involved in [deciding] the technologies that will use the spectrum, we are tuning loose the incredible innovators of this country. And with our oversight to protect competition, we are sure that the forces that drive that innovation and improve consumer service are alive and well.”

With all the key words — innovation, competition, and consumer — in place, Wheeler called the vote.

Making the spectrum available, however, is just the first in a very long series of steps between Americans and actual 5G service. The earliest timeline for actual commercial penetration is sometime in the 2018 – 2020 window… so don’t throw out your 4G phone just yet.

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.