2021 will be the year of 5G's rapid deployment. But it will be years before the full benefits are unlocked
The new generation of wireless technology known as 5G is exciting industry leaders who believe the rapid advancements toward faster internet speeds will spur innovation in every sector of the U.S economy.
On Monday night, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg spoke for nearly an hour about 5G during his keynote address at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, or CES, which is being held virtually this year. 5G was also featured in more than a dozen breakout sessions throughout the week as industry leaders discussed its impact on businesses, government, and consumers.
But researchers caution that the promises of life-changing applications will take years and that lawmakers in Washington might not be ready to lead the way.
"The big bet right now is to try to get all the infrastructure in place so that the next revolutionary app and service ecosystem can spring forward in the United States before it does somewhere else," said Stan Adams, deputy general counsel and open internet counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Installing new cell towers or upgrading existing ones with hundreds of thousands of pizza-box-size antennas on every block, and making available more radio frequencies for those towers to connect to, are critical for the technology's growth, experts say.
5G frequencies are available in the low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrums. In the past few years, the Federal Communications Commission has opened up 5 gigahertz of spectrum for 5G use. There's an ongoing auction to open up an additional 280 megahertz of space in the mid-band spectrum, which has so far raised a record $80 billion, a senior FCC official told CBS News.
The official said opening up new spectrum space has been challenging because much of the space is already in use.
Industry leaders agree that the full benefits of 5G will be unlocked with more high-band, millimeter wavelength frequencies becoming available. The high-band category provides the most bandwidth and fastest speeds, but the signal doesn't travel far and can't penetrate walls.
That means having "a tower on every corner of every block and maybe on every floor of every building," according to Adams. As a result, companies deploying the infrastructure often get locked into regulatory battles with cities and towns.
"The issue from the industry side is the new towers they're rolling out for 5G are not the 300 foot tall metal structures," Adams said, adding, "they're not the same kind of thing that most of the permitting and review rules had in mind when they were developed."
Local governments want to "preserve their ability to review and collect fees on new deployments in their towns," while the companies "want to roll out 5G in a timely fashion and cost effective way," Adams explained.
The FCC said it has adopted reforms to help speed up the deployment of 5G.
In 2018, the commission prevented localities from charging more than it costs them to process and manage applications. More recently, the FCC said state or local officials must approve any request for modification of existing towers that doesn't substantially change the dimensions of existing structures within 60 days.
Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation, told CBS News that a "centralized" committee to help with policy while engaging all the stakeholders will reduce regulatory battles and improve rollout efficiency.
"We need to sit back and figure out how to take all the Post-It notes and put them all into a complete plan so we can move forward cohesively around it," Turner Lee said. She added that "it is imperative" for the incoming Biden administration to think about "a 5G taskforce that would bring all these pieces together."
But some, like technology consultant and CEO of the Palmer Group Shelly Palmer, say lawmakers in Washington aren't tech savvy enough to usher in a new era of advancement.
"We've got lawmakers and legislation that are years behind the technology," Palmer said. "While it's always been that way, we've never had technology accelerating at a pace like this."
The coronavirus pandemic has increased the need for connectivity as Americans work and study from home. Beyond a fast internet connection, experts say 5G will support advances in telemedicine, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, and much more.
Palmer said "the really cool stuff" like mixed reality, which is the combination of physical and digital objects co-existing and interacting in real time and other applications that will rely on the fast speed and low latency of 5G, is going to take a few years.
In 2010, when 4G wireless technology hit the market, it took two to three years before life-changing applications like ride-sharing and video conferencing became commonplace .
Adams said 5G will also bring about the ability to deploy "literally millions of tiny little sensors" on all kinds of infrastructure and goods that will lead to "a lot more data collection across networks." Additionally, cell towers on every block means more precise geolocation of individual cell phones.
"As you magnify and amplify your data collection mechanisms, privacy suffers. We've seen that over and over again," Adams said.
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