Mobile Future

Call Me a 5G Optimist

Michael Phelps’ 23 gold medals mean nothing.  Although he has won swimming events many times, at this age he will probably fail.  Simone Biles won’t win gold in 2016.  She will underestimate the training required.  Simone Manuel won’t be the fastest female swimmer in the world.  That is just marketing hype.

Americans would be outraged and dumbfounded by such statements—jarring quackery—in the context of our Olympic athletes.  But we’re growing numb to such fact-free doom and gloom on the presidential campaign trail.  And, now this same ‘can’t-do’ spirit from self-styled technology cynics is infecting conversations about “5G” — the next generation of our wireless future.

Cynicism has deep and seemingly intractable roots.  The term dates back to ancient Greece, where it literally translates as ‘dog-like’ because followers of the philosophy reject earthly comforts to live life begging in the streets.  From there, it’s a quick slide downhill to understanding the origins of the ‘glass half empty’ world view.

Cynicism may be in vogue today, but there are a wealth of facts that should convince us to be in favor of ardent optimism when it comes to our nation’s 5G future.

As a 5G optimist, I’m in good company.  President Obama takes great pride in the fact that more than 98% of Americans have access to what he rightly calls “world-leading” 4G/LTE service.  And, the White House last month unveiled a $400-million Advanced Wireless Research Initiative to keep pressing forward.

Hillary Clinton recently unveiled a technology and innovation agenda that emphasizes continuing U.S. global leadership in building 5G networks.   And FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler turned his frown upside down by shepherding through his Spectrum Frontiers proposal, which positions the U.S. to be the first country to unlock high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications.

A few short years ago, the cynics deemed this idea impossible.  But US-led innovation shook the feathers off those chicken littles.  Advances in computing and antennas now allow us to unlock this spectrum to help meet the soaring demands of the most data-hungry wireless consumers on earth (that’s us, my fellow Americans).

The 5G build-out will be highly infrastructure intensive.  In additional to traditional cell towers, carriers will need to supplement heavily with small cells. These dorm fridge-sized devices are essential to harnessing high-band spectrum for commercial use.  Equally important will be a continued focus on offloading traffic as quickly and voluminously as possible onto fiber networks.

It is well and long understood among mobile operators that wireless infrastructure expansion must be underpinned by increasingly dense fiber networks.  At its most basic level, this concept is fairly intuitive for consumers, too.  Any parent who spent their summer observing kids tracking Pokemon has a sense of the interdependence of wired and wireless networks.

While 4G had a lot to do with video streaming, 5G will be about connecting the entire world around us—animating virtually every inanimate object.  With a hearty “sorry, not sorry” to the cynics, this  progress and heterogeneity of network demands is a good thing.  The progress made possible by the evolution to 5G will transform virtually every aspect of our lives—radically enhancing everything from the quality of our health care and education to the safety of our roads and the time we have for friends, family and what matters most in our lives.

International 5G standards are on the way—expected to arrive in 2020.  But the optimists—those who want to not just participate in what’s next, but to lead it—understand the time to move is now. AT&T and Verizon started trials last fall.  Google and Facebook are evaluating the technology.  At home and abroad, they are not alone.

To convey a sense of the scale of what’s next, one early use case being tested in the U.S. involves supporting 1 million connected devices in a one square kilometer area.  That’s jaw-dropping density until you consider that by 2022 a typical U.S. home could have as many as 500 connected “things.”

The quantum leap to 5G will require methodical, thoughtful engineering and science, combined with optimistic investment and a catalytic policy framework.  Building this uber-connectivity requires an approach led by the private sector, which government leaders readily acknowledge. After all, that has been the bipartisan formula for our nation’s march to global leadership from wireless day one.

In an apparent effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the cynics want you to believe that we will only experience 5G if the US adopts a government-led public utility approach in all things Internet.  They dutifully select cities like Stockholm, Seoul and Singapore as replicable models for the United States.  They do so despite the obvious contrast between these relatively dense, wealthy, homogeneous and small geographies and the vast, diverse complexity of the United States. And, they do so in defiance of the evidence of past experience — the world-leading $462 billion (and counting) that private sector U.S. wireless companies have invested in our nation’s mobile infrastructure since the dawn of the wireless age.

The tired and dated binary argument about how to pay for, build and operate a constantly upgraded and changing Internet —business bad/government good—has been flatly disproven by our nation’s dynamic and competitive mobile marketplace.  Quite the opposite, the U.S. wireless sector has out-invested and out-innovated the world.  A full 99.6% of Americans have access to 4G mobile broadband, and 92% of us have three or more choices for the service. And, the White House itself credits U.S. leadership to “America’s innovators, entrepreneurs, path-breaking wireless network companies, private-sector investors, and the unparalleled productivity of America’s workers.”

What we need now is not the cynical “can’t do, will fail” chorus of theorists, but a fierce focus on leadership built on a record of past accomplishments, and a shared realization that more than ever we need a smart, dynamic partnership between those who are building and those who are governing.  This isn’t the time to turn a cold shoulder to the promise of 5G.  Now is the time to come together to be positive, present, practical, vocal and engaged. America has the 4G gold, and we are the heavy favorite to repeat in the 5G future.  It will take massive investment, ingenuity, discipline and teamwork.  Because we have done it before with 2G, 3G and 4G, I have every confidence we can get there together with 5G.  So count me among the optimists.