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Government Backing May Be Key to Speed Up Wireless 5G

President Barack Obama addresses the Orlando mass shooting in Washington, DC. President Barack Obama addresses the Orlando mass shooting in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama addresses the Orlando mass shooting in Washington, DC. Photo by Alex Wong — Getty Images

The transition to the next generation standard for wireless networks, so-called 5G, has so far been fraught with confusion, complications, and even some contradictions. But in a few years, when 5G gear sending data at up to 100 times the speed of current networks is commonplace, people may remember July 2016 as a major turning point.

The private sector has offered mixed messages about when 5G will be available for regular people and just what it will be used for. Without many standards yet agreed upon, some predicted 5G would be ready starting next year, but others said not until 2020 or later. Some wanted to use it to speed up smartphone connections, while others said it was better suited to improve home and business Internet connections or to collect data from smart devices in the “Internet of Things.”

But over the past few days, the Obama administration has moved to provide some clarity and certainty around the rules and standards that will guide the transition, at least in the United States.

On Friday, the White House announced over $400 million of projects to speed the transition. The move to fund large-scale 5G tests in four cities and back 5G-related research projects over the next seven years follows Thursday’s decision by the Federal Communications Commission to designate specific frequencies and set out usage rules for 5G networks.

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To be sure, the private sector has also been getting smarter and better organized for 5g this year and the new Obama effort will be conducted in conjunction with a bevy of technology and telecommunications partners. All four major wireless carriers, AT&T (T), Verizon Communications (VZ), Sprint (S), and T-Mobile (TMUS), are participating. Tech companies on board include Intel (INTC), Juniper Networks (JNPR), Qualcomm (QCOM), and Nokia (NOK).

The bulk of the money will create the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative to be led by the National Science Foundation. About $85 million will go towards building the four test platforms, with another $350 million for academic research using the test beds. The administration will hold an open competition to choose which four cities will get the test equipment. Wireless companies have also pledged $35 million to support the testing platforms.

“These super-fast, ultra-low latency, high-capacity networks will enable breakthrough applications for consumers, smart cities, and the Internet of Things that cannot even be imagined today,” the White House said in a statement.