A decade ago, the iPhone was still a novelty. Apple's App Store was barely a year old. Online gaming required consoles or computers, Wi-Fi connections, and power outlets. Your phone could make calls and receive emails, but it would be two years before Facebook even had a mobile app.
Today your phone is a portal to entertainment and essential services, from online games to driving directions to health care records, all of which is available to you just about anywhere.
Less than a decade from now, an even better wireless internet system might let you play a console-quality game on your phone, then click an app to video chat with a physician who can read your vital signs and prescribe medication—all without leaving your house, or perhaps while zipping around town in an autonomous vehicle.
The fourth generation of wireless telecommunications technology, or "4G," allowed for streaming video, integrated mapping apps such as Waze, and an explosion in social media, from Snapchat to Instagram—though few people would have predicted those specific developments when 4G debuted about a decade ago.
With "5G," the possibilities are bigger and weirder. But the leap to the next level of mobile internet connectivity will require a complete overhaul of the infrastructure that's formed the backbone of cellphone networks for the past two decades. New antennas will communicate with faster microchips inside your phone, using a new type of signal in previously unused bandwidth. Some wireless companies are already selling "5G-ready" devices and marketing their networks as ready to "evolve" to 5G.
For now, those are mostly marketing ploys. Even if your phone says it's 5G E, you are not actually experiencing the new network yet. A tiny number of cities have small 5G networks up and running, But as with 4G, the really cool stuff will take more time.
That is, if the government doesn't make a mess of it.
Upgrading existing cellphone networks to 5G will require cooperation from local governments and a hands-off approach from Washington. Unfortunately, the many ways in which modern telecommunications technology intersects with the government's regulatory, economic, and security concerns—and, increasingly, how it figures into the geopolitical "race" between the U.S. and China—provide ample opportunity for bureaucratic interference. All of which means that 5G technology has become the latest battlefield for an age-old struggle between the forces of stasis and of innovation.
"There's about every geopolitical, technical, and economic angle you can imagine," says Shane Tews, a tech policy fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. That creates plenty of opportunities for government meddling. Some cities are upset that federal guidelines determine where critical 5G infrastructure can be located, potentially depriving localities of a chance to shake down telecom companies. The Trump administration suggested—and then backed away from—a plan to nationalize part of the 5G rollout, taking decision-making power out of the private sector's hands. And regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have been fighting to keep other agencies from slowing 5G's deployment for frivolous bureaucratic reasons.
"Government can best serve the public interest through regulatory humility," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has championed a hands-off approach to 5G, said at a conference in Austin, Texas, last year. "Instead of viewing innovation as a problem to be regulated based on rules from the past, government should see innovation's potential, guided by markets that embrace the future."
Faster Games, Better Health
To understand why gaming—and everything else done on a mobile network—will be radically different in a 5G world, you have to understand two related ways to measure the speed of a mobile connection.
The first is bit rate, a term for download and upload speeds. A solid 4G mobile connection might provide download speeds of about 50 megabits per second (Mbps), but average 5G connections will operate at roughly 1 gigabyte per second—about 20 times faster than 4G. Qualcomm, one of the world's biggest chip makers, has demonstrated 5G microchips capable of handling downloads at up to 4.5 gigabytes per second, though that sort of speed is unlikely to be common. In practical terms, a feature-length movie that would have taken 24 hours to download on a 3G connection and about 6 minutes on a 4G connection will take just 10 seconds with 5G.
The second component that determines the speed of a mobile internet connection is something called latency. It's the gap in time between when a mobile device sends a command and when that command is received by a server. Even though the gaps can be mere milliseconds, they add up quickly when a mobile game or other app is sending and receiving millions of commands every minute.
Think about it like this: Each shot fired at an in-game target requires your phone to send a series of commands to a server in the cloud. The server determines whether the shot was a hit or a miss, and then the network reports that information back to your phone to be displayed on the screen. It all happens so fast that you don't even think about it—unless a laggy connection ruins the experience.
Mobile gaming exploded during the 4G era, but it's still limited compared to what you can play on a console (such as an Xbox) or a desktop gaming rig. Mobile connections just aren't as fast as wired connections. But 5G technology makes it possible to imagine a Netflix-like experience that requires no console, just a phone or other portable device, with games run completely on remote servers.
Google's Stadia project, which has already gone through beta testing and is set for release in November, might be the first gaming system to take advantage of the coming 5G networks. Google claims that Stadia—an online-only gaming system—will offer console-quality games that can be played on any screen, from PCs to TVs to phones. Instead of games being stored on a disc or hard drive, they'll be stored in the cloud, accessible from anywhere. Waiting to download a game, says Phil Harrison, Google's vice president in charge of the Stadia project, "will be a thing of the past."
While at home, many players might connect to Stadia over a traditional cable or fiber optic internet, where speeds of 1 gigabyte per second are already available. But with the advent of 5G mobile connections, gamers will, in theory, be able to play the same game on the go without sacrificing quality or speed.
To use Stadia, Google recommends a connection of at least 10 Mbps and latency of less than 40 milliseconds with 5 percent data loss. That connection speed is within the range available on 4G networks now, but latency on a 4G connection averages about 50 milliseconds. LTE connections have reduced that to about 20 milliseconds, at best—sufficient for a service like Stadia, if you can maintain a strong enough connection. The 5G specs adopted last year by the International Telecommunications Union, which sets industry standards, call for latency of no more than 4 milliseconds.
Faster gaming is one thing, but other 5G developments might do more than make your life more enjoyable—they might prolong it. The ability to move more data more quickly between devices will open the door to new medical technologies, giving doctors volumes of information about patients even without being in the same room. That means telemedicine could finally be ready to go mainstream.
Market Research Future, a firm that predicts business trends, expects the American telemedicine market to grow by more than 16 percent annually from 2017 to 2023, in large part because faster connection speeds and lower latency will let doctors talk to and diagnose patients via high-definition video streamed from a phone. That could be a huge development for access to medical care—one that would be a boon for residents of rural areas, for the poor, and for the elderly. And everyone will benefit from spending less time sitting in a waiting room. If 4G gives you the ability to play Angry Birds until the doctor is ready to see you, 5G may let you skip the in-person visit altogether.
Some telemedicine will be fully automated, with wearable sensors providing real-time information about vital signs, falls, or physical activity, giving doctors a better understanding of a patient's health with fewer invasive procedures. A Stanford University study estimates that, in 2020, Americans will produce 2,314 exabytes of medical data (an exabyte is equal to a billion gigabytes), up from a mere 153 exabytes in 2013.
"Those troves of information become the foundation for biomedical research," the Stanford researchers conclude. "We are beginning to reconstruct the relationship between genes and life and health in ways that are likely to be transformative."
5G's NIMBY Problem
Some of the policies that will dictate 5G's future are being made right now at the State Department, the Commerce Department, and the FCC. But equally important is what happens in places like Room 412 of the John A. Wilson Building in Washington, D.C., home to Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city council.
There, during an October 2018 hearing, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ann Mladinov voiced concern about the "visual clutter" that could result from having "so many additional poles holding small cell boxes over sidewalks and in other public space." At the same hearing, another attendee told the council it should protect D.C. neighborhoods' aesthetic qualities from being "put at risk for more corporate gain." Like tall buildings and other forms of visible urban development, 5G has a "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) problem.
Those complaints, and many more like them lodged with city councils across the country, have to do with the physical hardware that will be necessary for widespread 5G adoption. Mobile providers are ditching the traditional cell tower, the backbone of cellular networks since they first emerged, in favor of so-called "small cell" antennas. These devices—some no bigger than a backpack, others as large as a refrigerator—will be affixed to telephone poles and buildings. Because each one has a considerably smaller range than a tower, covering a whole city requires a small cell to be placed every few blocks, a potential point of friction for residents who dislike change. But the benefits for users will be large.
Not only will the physical components be capable of making faster connections, but the physical proximity to users and greater bandwidth will allow more devices to be connected at once. A 4G network can handle about 4,000 devices per square kilometer. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg has claimed that 5G networks will be able to handle up to 1 million devices within the same space.
"It's going to introduce more competition, that's for sure," says Ian Adams, a 5G policy expert with TechFreedom, a nonprofit advocacy group. Because 5G mobile networks will offer speeds similar to wired connections, cable companies and traditional internet service providers will have more rivals. This may force them to innovate or lower prices, and the likely result will be better, cheaper online access for all.
But if the tradeoff is greater "visual clutter" on and above city streets, some people won't be on the side of innovation.
In letters to the FCC, telecom companies have complained about a wide range of local regulations that have slowed the deployment of 5G infrastructure—often a result of trying to apply rules written for large cell towers to the small cell antennas. For example, one Pennsylvania town requires that an eight-foot fence be erected around any structure containing a small cell antenna. That's commonsensical for older, larger towers, but it's nonsensical for a device that can be attached to a telephone pole.
Similarly, AT&T complained that it has had to pause or decrease small cell deployments in parts of California, Maryland, and Massachusetts due to high fees, and that some municipalities in Washington and New York have used restrictive zoning to limit the placement of small cell antennas. Timing is also an issue. The Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), an industry group, claims that about a third of all wireless antenna approvals exceed the 90-day limit for review that the FCC established in 2009. In one extreme case, the town of Paramus, New Jersey, spent five years considering a Sprint application for a new cell site before denying the request. In Greenburgh, New York, a small cell contractor faced a review process for a single antenna that "took approximately two years and nearly twenty meetings, with constantly shifting demands," the WIA says. When a telecom company wanted to attach 23 small cells to the sides of Houston's NRG Stadium, it first had to spend $180,000 in mandatory historic review fees. The stadium was built in 2002.
In taking action to curb the worst abuses, the FCC is attempting to strike a balance between innovation and local control. The agency estimates that streamlining the approval process will save telecoms $2 billion that can be put toward further expansion of their 5G networks.
But federal pre-emption is always going to be an imperfect solution. Ideally, telecom companies would negotiate with individual property owners to obtain the right to place small cell antennas on the sides of buildings or atop privately owned poles. But local governments generally control where such devices can be installed and how much companies are required to pay for the privilege.
It's fine for residents to voice their opinions, of course, but "a local government shouldn't get to impede the development of a national infrastructure," says Adams. "Putting guardrails on particularly egregious local actions," as the FCC has tried to do, is "important if we want to have uniformity of infrastructure."
The local interference can indeed be egregious. In 2015, San Jose, California, started charging telecom companies $3,500 for each small cell antenna installed—far more than what similarly sized cities like Phoenix ($100) and Indianapolis ($50) charge for the right to install the same equipment. By 2018, it was apparent that the costs were causing San Jose to fall behind in the early stages of 5G deployment. So the city reconfigured the per-antenna fee into a $1 million one-time payment coupled with ongoing tax obligations. Mayor Sam Liccardo promised to use the revenue for a "Digital Inclusion Fund" that would spend $24 million bringing high-speed internet to 50,000 low-income households within the next 10 years.
The FCC's new rules put an end to that shakedown. By capping the fees that localities can charge for installing 5G small cell antennas, it ensured that companies like T-Mobile and Verizon don't have to pay off cities like San Jose for the right to bring residents high-speed mobile internet.
Shireen Santosham, the chief innovation officer within the San Jose mayor's office, has called the FCC's rules "a $2 billion taxpayer-funded subsidy to corporate interests." But that's hardly accurate. The new policy doesn't require that taxpayers underwrite the 5G rollout. It only prevents cities from extorting telecom companies for the right to deploy small antennas. Keeping those dollars out of city tax coffers means the companies will be able to invest in infrastructure where they know it's needed rather than where bureaucrats decide it should go.
Governments should strive to make "an honest assessment of where the market is," says Pai, "recognizing that government can't predict and shouldn't micromanage the future, and getting rid of the red tape that stifles innovation and progress."
Trump vs. the FCC
Now, Pai and the FCC find themselves fighting not only NIMBYs and city councils but another arm of the Trump administration. The strangest controversy to erupt over the 5G rollout pits the FCC against the Department of Commerce.
The conflict began earlier this year, when AT&T and T-Mobile won an auction for the rights to various territories within the 24 gigahertz (GHz) bandwidth. Spectrum auctions are routine; this was the 101st such event in the FCC's history.
Things got weird in May, when NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which are jointly responsible for America's fleet of weather-tracking satellites, complained to Congress that 5G cellphone signals in the 24 GHz bandwidth could interfere with satellites that read water vapor signals coming off the ocean. Among other things, those satellites are critical for forecasting the paths of tropical storms. In 2012, for example, they correctly predicted that Hurricane Sandy would make an unusual westward turn toward the New York City metro area. Without that tip, the disaster could have been far worse.
NOAA relies on a signal band that runs between 23.6 GHz and 24 GHz, so there won't be direct overlap with the 24 GHz space that the mobile companies bought, which is currently unused. The federal weathermen say things could get cloudy along the very edges, where the bands run up against one another. Pai's agency predicts sunny skies ahead because there's already a buffer zone between the two bandwidths—and because independent testing commissioned by the FCC has concluded that there's no need to worry.
"The assumptions that undergird [NOAA's 5G interference claims] are fundamentally flawed," Pai told the Senate Commerce Committee in June. Among other things, the NOAA study did not take into account the fact that 5G signals will be more focused ("beam-forming signals," in industry lingo) than the signals sent by traditional cellphone towers, which broadcast in all directions.
In the two years since NOAA initially objected, the agency has not completed a follow-up study to confirm its worries about interference. Pai told lawmakers he was frustrated by the hold-ups. "The Department of Commerce [which oversees NOAA] has been blocking our efforts at every single turn," he said.
If the possibility of interference with weather satellites "is truly a technical problem," says Joel Thayer, policy counsel for The App Association, which represents more than 5,000 app makers and mobile device companies, "then these agencies can solve it with technical solutions instead of performing political theater."
While Commerce continues to drag its feet, the Department of Justice removed a potential stumbling block to the 5G rollout this summer when it gave the go-ahead for a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, the third- and fourth-largest telecom providers in America. That merger was essential, the two companies argued, because they individually lacked the capital and wireless spectrum access necessary to compete with their larger rivals (AT&T and Verizon) in deploying 5G tech.
Attorneys general from 14 states and the District of Columbia have objected to the proposed $26 billion merger, citing fears about limited choice in the telecom market. The merger would "cause irreparable harm to mobile subscribers nationwide by cutting access to affordable, reliable wireless service," they warned in a letter asking the Justice Department to block the deal.
But without a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, wireless customers might have been left with fewer choices, not more. If neither company was positioned to compete with the bigger providers, the result would be a 5G network dominated by two companies instead of three, says Jessica Melugin, associate director for technology and innovation at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
The Justice Department gave its assent to the deal in July, but not without some typically shady maneuvers on all sides. T-Mobile executives spent more than $195,000 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., while lobbying for the merger, The Washington Post reported. And before allowing the deal to go through, Justice Department officials required the companies to agree to subsidize a new telecom competitor: Satellite TV provider Dish, which is acquiring Boost Mobile, will have access to T-Mobile cell towers for the next five years as it builds out its own network.
"With the government out of the way, consumers will get the wireless innovations they deserve and that the unfettered marketplace can deliver," says Melugin. "It's a shame this approval had to come with government divestiture conditions that are likely arbitrary and unfairly penalizing."
Winning the Race
Of all the ways that government could intervene to screw up the transition to 5G, perhaps none would be worse than the idea floated in January 2018 by officials at the National Security Council (NSC).
A leaked NSC memo compared the development of 5G infrastructure to the building of the national interstate highway system. It suggested that the Trump administration should effectively nationalize broadband service as a way to stay ahead of the Chinese government's development of similar tech. The idea was widely condemned by the tech industry, by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, by the FCC, and by top White House policy advisers such as Larry Kudlow.
But like many bad ideas, this one refuses to die. In March, Brad Parscale, a top Trump campaign aide, pushed the idea of a "wholesale" 5G network in which the government owns the spectrum and distributes rights to wireless providers within certain geographic areas. The plan "is in line with President Trump's agenda to benefit all Americans, regardless of geography," Kayleigh McEnany, the campaign's national spokeswoman, told Politico.
It would likely end up doing the opposite. A "wholesale" broadband system would eliminate the competition that should be created by the 5G rollout, instead carving the country into a series of geographic quasi-monopolies, similar to how cable services used to operate. The federal government could force wireless providers to serve rural areas that might otherwise have to wait a while to get 5G service—but at the cost of preventing those companies from determining the most efficient way to allocate limited resources.
Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has published a series of op-eds encouraging the Trump administration to nationalize the 5G network in response to China's attempt to do the same. "Our own laissez-faire tendencies and preferences are being used to defeat us," Gingrich wrote. "If we don't take decisive action soon, we will find that the Chinese have occupied an overwhelming position in wireless on the geostrategic map. We will find ourselves surrounded." Much of the subtext of the "race to 5G" narrative is wrapped around this jingoistic framing.
The people who make such arguments are not completely wrong. After all, there is a significant "first mover advantage" to attracting the firms that will build the telemedicine, artificial intelligence, gaming, and autonomous vehicle apps that will occupy the 5G landscape. A decade ago, the U.S. "won" the race to 4G, which the FCC estimates added $100 billion to America's gross domestic product by putting us at the forefront of a $950 billion app economy.
And China is indeed winning at 5G deployment so far. China Tower, the state-owned cell infrastructure monopoly, has installed more than 1.9 million cell sites, while the United States has a little more than 300,000. Some, like Gingrich, see those numbers as cause for panic—and panic, as always, paves the way for government intervention. But becoming like China is not the way to beat China.
Thankfully, Trump seems to have broken with his own campaign on the 5G issue. At an April press conference, the president reaffirmed the importance of a free market in telecom deployment. "In the United States, our approach is private sector–driven and private sector–led," he said, promising that wireless companies would invest $275 billion in building 5G networks and creating 3 million jobs. "As you probably heard, we had another alternative of doing it. That would be through government investment. We don't want to do that because it won't be nearly as good, nearly as fast." He's right about that.
Some of those promised jobs are already starting to materialize. Ericsson, a Sweden-based maker of telecommunications equipment, announced in late June that it would build a new factory in the United States to produce small cell antennas and other 5G gear. The planned factory's location has not yet been determined, but the company hopes to have it open by early 2020. "Building 5G equipment in the United States," the FCC's Pai said in a statement, "is good for our economy, good for the supply chain, and good for the rapid rollout of the next generation of wireless connectivity."
It's probably misleading to think about the next round of mobile technology as a "race" at all. It's not a one-time event that will have an absolute winner and—as the president might say—a total loser. Having the first viable national 5G network would be an undeniable boon to whichever country achieves it, but the "race" metaphor is a zero-sum vision of the future.
Realistically, 5G technology is going to make everyone better off, even if we can't predict exactly how. When the first 4G smartphones went on the market in 2009, they were expected to usher in an explosion of new apps and other software. But few could have predicted the specifics, from Uber to Fortnite.
The same will be true for the 5G era. Brent Skorup, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, predicts we'll get "warehouse-floor robots that self-organize shipments, remotely operated electric air taxis that carry passengers high above rush-hour traffic, or smart glasses that connect blind people with professional guides who use audio-video feeds to help wearers get around."
Fast mobile connectivity is the foundation for whatever future innovations may develop. It promises more jobs, better communication, more enjoyable leisure time, and medical advances that let us live longer. "The speed of our connections is the speed of commerce," says Adams, who favors the mostly hands-off approach the FCC has been taking with the 5G rollout. Whether for work or for play, he says, "the availability of virtually unlimited data is only going to improve the quality of life."