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Why the FCC Unanimously Voted to Advance 5G Networks

July 14, 2016, 4:19 PM UTC
Photograph by Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to open substantial spectrum for next-generation high-speed 5G wireless applications and networks—a move that could eventually reshape significant portions of the U.S. economy.

The FCC approved opening nearly 11 gigahertz of high-frequency spectrum for mobile, flexible, and fixed-use wireless broadband. The FCC said the new rules “will provide vital clarity for business investment in this area.”

Verizon Communications (VZ) and AT&T (T) have said they will begin deploying 5G trials in 2017, and the first commercial deployments at scale are expected in 2020, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said.

Wheeler said 5G will help more Americans get access to high-speed internet. “This is a big day for our nation,” he said, adding it could enable many innovations not yet imagined.

Policymakers and mobile phone companies say the next generation of wireless signals needs to be much faster and far more responsive to allow advanced technologies like virtual surgery or controlling machines remotely.

“There is seemingly no limit on how what we refer to as 5G could impact our everyday existence,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said. “A refrigerator that not only alerts you to a near empty egg carton, but automatically adds that item to a virtual shopping list, enabling a delivery to your door by week’s end, without any action from you.”

There are still other questions to be answered before 5G networks are in place—including a standard definition of 5G and exactly how much spectrum is needed, commissioners said.

The FCC said the new rules balance spectrum use between new wireless services, satellite operations and federal government use.

The FCC will make spectrum available and rely on a process led by the private sector for producing technical standards.

New 5G networks are expected to provide speeds more than 10 times faster than today’s 4G networks, the FCC said.

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The technology could improve traffic by installing sensors in streetlights, roadside architecture, and cars. It could help monitor pollution by installing sensors in trees to gauge environmental impacts.

“We are on the cusp of cars that drive themselves, streets that can be safer, emergency services that are more effective, healthcare that is more personalized, and more capability across the board because we are more connected,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.

There is a worldwide race to adopt 5G. South Korea and Japan plan to deploy 5G service by the time they host the Olympics, in 2018 and 2020, respectively. The European Commission, South Korea, China, and Japan are all working on 5G research efforts.