As the leaders of the global telecom business meet in Barcelona this week for the annual Mobile World Congress, the hype around the next generation of mobile networking will be as deafening as a heavy metal rock show. The new technology – known as 5G for “fifth generation mobile technology” – promises to be the most significant advance in mobile since the cell phone was invented in the 1960s.
While the details won’t be completely ironed out for four to five years, some things about 5G are already clear: it will be super fast, 100 to 1000 times faster than today’s networks. Radically increased capacity enables a new generation of applications, especially those that rely on video. Ultra-high speed mobile video networks will enable drones, smart cars, immersive gaming, and “virtual reality” entertainment experiences that blur the lines between imagination and reality.
These technologies will produce breakthroughs in mental health, as we can see from pioneering work in England with the use of virtual reality to treat phobias. 5G technologies will also revolutionize education as students of history and archaeology can feel what life was like in prior ages.
Engineering students will be able to visualize complex interactions inside the systems they create, and doctors will gain insight into the state of patient health as people live their lives outside the doctor’s office.
But a lot of work has to be done by technologists to make these visions real. We will need new computer chips that can process information at extremely high frequencies that haven’t been used outside of military applications to this point. The design of the Internet will need to change as we move to higher speeds on pervasive networks with at least ten times as many radio antennas as we’re used to, most of them shared. The nagging problems of privacy and security that have plagued the Internet since it was an obscure research network in the 1970s will need to be addressed with realistic solutions.
Even more will be demanded of policy makers and regulators than of technologists. Wireless networks require spectrum, the radio frequency airwaves over which information flow. 5G systems will depend on new licenses for spectrum spanning the frequencies we use today, as well as the vast swathes that will be needed in virgin territory tomorrow.
Unlicensed spectrum used by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi today will need to expand by five to ten times along with flexible rules that enable the creation of more efficient systems. And obsolete systems such as over-the-air TV and the traditional telephone network will need to be phased out so that investment capital and human resources can be redirected toward the mobile future.
A transformation on the scale of 5G mobile doesn’t happen every decade or even every century; the closest analogy is the advent of the telegraph network in the mid 19th century. Policy makers like to rely on precedent, so they’re understandably flummoxed by transformational technology. When genuine advances loom on the horizon, regulators often prefer to ignore them until forced to act. This tendency may explain the FCC’s peculiar fixation on spring cleaning over the past year.
The top items on that agency’s to-do list are old issues that have been hanging around the Commission’s dockets for ten years or more. Last year’s big events were life support for the traditional telephone network and net neutrality, a preservationist issue largely intended to slow the pace of change in the Internet economy.
This year, the agency is focused on redesigning cable TV boxes just ahead of cable’s transformation from a broadcast medium to an on-demand marketplace in which cable boxes are irrelevant. While we witness an explosion in independently-produced programming the likes of which we’ve never seen, the FCC obsesses over channel assignments for the last days of broadcast TV. In months to come, the commission is set to take steps to preserve copper wire for data transmission just in time for fiber optic data networks to complete their rise to dominance.
South Korea, Japan, and some nations in Western Europe are racing full bore toward the 5G future while our policy makers reminisce about America’s 20th century technology leadership. Whoever takes the helm of the post-election FCC will need to fully embrace emerging technology trends lest the nation be left behind.
I don’t know who that person will be or which of the current candidates will make their nomination, but voters would be wise to press candidates on their technology agendas before voting. The future of our economy, our society, and our quality of life depends on it.