5G – Dunno


5G talk is everywhere. It’s a worldwide race. It’s a security challenge. It’s a geopolitical battle between the United States and China. By some accounts, 5G is already here; by others, true 5G is still years away.

There is more than a kernel of truth in this rhetorical excess. That’s because the next generation of essential infrastructure in this country will be built using wireless technology. As a result, the next iteration of wireless service—5G—is truly important for our future civic and commercial life. With as much as 100x the speed as current generation wireless networks and reduced latency, we can use wireless data to enhance our interactions with the world around us and create new opportunities in manufacturing, transportation, health care, education, agriculture, and more. It will support new services that will drive economic growth and job creation for years to come.

However, lost in the glowing headlines is the fact the United States is making choices that will leave rural America behind. These choices will harm our global leadership in 5G and could create new challenges for the security of our networks.

Here’s why. The most important input in our new wireless world is spectrum, or the invisible airwaves that are used to send and receive the radio signals that power wireless communications. For decades, slices of spectrum have been reserved for different uses, from television broadcasting to military radar. But today demands on our airwaves have grown. So the Federal Communications Commission has been working to clear these airwaves of old uses and auction them so they can be repurposed for new 5G service.

But not all spectrum is created equal. The traditional sweet spot for wireless service has been in what we call low-band or mid-band spectrum. This is between 600 MHz and 3 GHz. For a long time, these airwaves were considered beachfront property because they send signals far. In other words, they cover wide areas but require little power to do so. This makes them especially attractive for service in rural areas, where technology that can reach more people with less infrastructure makes greater economic sense.

For 5G, however, the United States has focused on making high-band spectrum the core of its early 5G approach. These airwaves, known as “millimeter wave,” are way, way up there—above 24 GHz. They have never been used in cellular networks before, and for good reason—they don’t send signals very far and are easily blocked by walls. That means they are very expensive to build out. On the flip side, these airwaves offer a lot more capacity, which translates into ultrafast speeds.

The United States is alone in this mission to make millimeter wave the core of its domestic 5G networks. The rest of the world is taking a different approach. Other nations vying for wireless leadership are not putting high-band airwaves front and center now. Instead, they are focusing on building 5G networks with mid-band spectrum, because it will support faster, cheaper, and more ubiquitous 5G deployment.

Take China, which allocated large swaths of mid-band spectrum for its carriers last year, clearing the way for deployment in a country that is also home to Huawei, the largest telecommunications equipment supplier worldwide. South Korea and Australia wrapped up an auction of key mid-band spectrum last year. At roughly the same time, Spain and Italy held their own auctions for mid-band airwaves. Austria did the same earlier this year. Switzerland, Germany, and Japan also auctioned a range of mid-band spectrum just a few months ago.

The United States, however, has made zero mid-band spectrum available at auction for the 5G economy. Moreover, it has zero mid-band auctions scheduled.

This is a problem. By ceding international leadership when it comes to developing 5G in the mid-band, we miss the benefits of scale and face higher costs and interoperability challenges. It also means less security as other nations’ technologies proliferate. Indeed, the most effective thing the United States can do in the short term to enhance the security of 5G equipment is make mid-band spectrum available, which will spur a broader market for more secure 5G equipment that will also benefit other countries that are pursuing mid-band deployments.

By auctioning only high-band spectrum, we also risk worsening the digital divide that already plagues so many rural communities in the United States. That’s because recent commercial launches of 5G service across the country are confirming what we already know—that commercializing millimeter wave will not be easy or cheap, given its propagation challenges. The network densification these airwaves require is substantial. In fact, recent tests of newly launched commercial 5G networks in the United States are showing that millimeter wave signals are not traveling more than 350 feet, even when there are no major obstructions. They are also not penetrating walls or windows, making indoor coverage difficult.

This means that high-band 5G service is unlikely outside of the most populated urban areas. The sheer volume of antenna facilities needed make this service viable makes it too costly to deploy in rural areas. So if we want to serve everywhere—and not create communities of 5G haves and have-nots—we are going to need a mix of airwaves that provide both coverage and capacity. That means we need mid-band spectrum. For rural America to see competitive 5G in the near future, we cannot count on high-band spectrum to get the job done.

The heat-seeking headlines about 5G are hard to resist. But the reality on the ground needs attention, too. For the United States to have secure 5G service available to everyone, everywhere, we need to stop going at it alone with millimeter wave spectrum. We need to make it a priority to auction mid-band airwaves right now. The longer we wait, the further behind the United States will fall—and the less likely our rural communities will see the benefits of next generation of wireless technology

OTOH: “We, the undersigned 180 scientists, recommend a moratorium on the roll-out of the fifth generation, 5G, until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry. 5G will substantially increase exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) and has been proven to be harmful for humans and the environment.” We just started thinking about 5G a few weeks ago, not much thinking BTW, and are currently clueless.

Bonus: for a little fun, here’s something we’re also totally clueless about: the 1960 World Series.

6 Responses to “5G – Dunno”

  1. feeblemind Says:

    What I know about 5G wouldn’t fill a thimble. However, I was pretty sure it would leave rural areas at a disadvantage when I read how high the density of antennas was required to make the system work.

    I seriously doubt there are any adverse health effects.

  2. Neil Says:

    I don’t know about the health effects. The milimeter-wave band is more readily absorbed by the body than lower frequencies. Heating is probably negligible unless you put your head right next to the antennas of a cell tower, but that’s true of 4G as well.

    Milimeter-band 5G is probably a non-starter, if it’s true the U.S. is the only country intending to use it. It’s a technologically crazy idea, because those frequencies have such poor propagation. There *are* really cool things you can do with millimeter-wave active antennae, I’m pretty sure some of the gee-whiz stuff I’ve heard about 5G relies on that (such as *very* precise location services for 5G devices). But if the U.S. is the only customer for it, it’s going to be Betamax to Huawei’s VHS.

    The other consideration that has occurred to me is that the FCC might be avoiding the mid-band because somebody at DoD is a big user of that spectrum. If so, then the President will probably have to step in to free it up.

    Also: Here’s a guy with some interesting things to say on the topic. Gen. Robert Spalding:

  3. feeblemind Says:

    Thanks for the link Neil. I had never heard of hooktube.

  4. feeblemind Says:

    This is a hoot.

    Flashback 2008: What ABC Predicted Climate Change Would Do by 2015

    Remember, ABC played this in 2008, 11 years ago on Good Morning America…

    MAN 3: (channel change sound effect) Temperatures have hit dangerous levels.

    MAN 4: (channel change sound effect) Agricultural production’s dropping because temperatures are rising!

    HEIDI CULLEN: (images of hungry people) There’s about one billion people who are malnourished. That number just continually grows!

    TEENAGE BOY: (prediction of the future) It’s June 8th, 2015. One carton of milk is $12.99.

    MAN 5: (prediction of the future) Gas has reached over $9 a gallon!

    MAN 6: I’m scared (bleep) right now. But I have to get this out.

    RUSH: It was a bunch of young people in this ad. They were predicting that by 2015 — four years ago — milk would be 13 bucks a gallon, gasoline over $9 a gallon. The video effects show Manhattan half underwater.


  5. Nobody of Import Says:

    Mid-band is what is currently already being used. The other players are recycling stuff that was getting phased out for the purpose of 5G. The US players are so greedy that they don’t want to do that…cannibalize their 4G market for the 5G one.

  6. Guest Says:

    Millimeter wave 5G is going to be useful primarily for high-capacity edge nodes in extremely densely populated areas or select areas under common control. It will resolve critical bandwidth issues in densely populated areas like sports stadiums or music venues so teenage girls will no longer be frustrated by the difficulty in posting selfies to their Instagram account. That’s worth billions in and of itself.

    Millimeter wave networks require an access point approximately every 250 meters, so 5G infrastructure will find applications in factories, college and corporate campuses, and even densely populated cities like Manhattan. Network service providers may be able to build out 5G networks in downtown areas of other cities, but absent massive government interference it will simply not be cost-effective to build out 5G millimeter wave networks in other areas.

    All the hype about 5G self-driving cars on the freeway is a pipe dream, at least for millimeter wave networks. The range of the access points can probably be extended to 300 or 400 meters using directional antenna and beamforming technology, but it still will require 6-8 access points per mile of highway. Again, this can be cost-justified on densely packed urban road, but not on the open road.

    I do some work in this area. I’m in my 50s, and I don’t expect to see widespread adoption of 5G millimeter wave networks outside of these select environments in my lifetime.

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