5G gets a shot in the arm from the FCC

Chairman Tom Wheeler wants to make sure the US stays No. 1 in wireless. He's got a plan to free up additional spectrum for 5G wireless technology.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
2 min read
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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has a plan to free up spectrum for 5G wireless service.

David Ramos, Getty Images

US regulators are setting the stage for the next era in wireless.

The Federal Communications Commission next month will vote on a proposal to help identify and free up wireless spectrum at very high frequencies that could be used to power fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular networks. The agency will do as it did with the development of 4G LTE and stay out of the way of industry innovators as they define and develop 5G technology, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in announcing the proposal Monday.

"Turning innovators loose is far preferable to expecting committees and regulators to define the future," he said. "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."

The announcement helps pave the way for next-generation wireless networks, which promise much greater speed and widespread coverage that could significantly change our lives.

What is 5G?

5G speeds could be 10 to 100 times higher than those of today's 4G networks. Even though standards for 5G have yet to be developed, the technology is expected to enable everything from self-driving cars to remote surgeries done via robots to school field trips through the human body made possible by virtual reality gear.

The hype around 5G has been building over the past year, with wireless operators like AT&T and Verizon already demonstrating the technology and promising a limited service roll out as soon as this year.

Watch this: What is 5G?

The FCC's proposal to free up additional spectrum is the first step in a long process to make sure wireless operators get the airwaves they need to make these services a reality. The chairman's promise to take a hands-off approach in developing policy is a welcome signal to wireless operators that the government won't be a roadblock.

Wheeler said he will begin circulating his new proposal on Thursday. If it passes, the US will be the first country to begin identifying high-frequency spectrum that can be used for 5G service, ensuring the US maintains its leadership in wireless, Wheeler said.

Spectrum, spectrum, spectrum

Very high frequency spectrum known as millimeter waves are key to the development of 5G because these frequencies can carry large amounts of data and transfer signals with low latency -- that is, with minimal delay. But there are technical challenges in using this spectrum. Signals transmitted over very high frequencies can only travel short distances and have difficulty penetrating obstacles, which makes designing such networks tricky.

Some of the spectrum that could be used for 5G is currently used for satellite communications and for navigation services like GPS. As part of this proposal, the FCC will work with satellite providers to ensure the spectrum can be shared with wireless broadband companies that want to use it to build terrestrial 5G networks.

"We are the pioneers of a new spectrum frontier," Wheeler said. "Working together, we can write the next chapter in the mobile revolution that has already transformed our lives and society."