The Battle for 5G
Posted on: May 2, 2016

Whether through cooperation or confrontation, government and industry will determine the wireless future.

Begin with the end in mind. That is the Federal Communications Commission’s approach to secure and facilitate the use of mobile broadband and next-generation wireless technologies operating at higher frequencies of the electromagnetic spectrum. Its goal is to encourage the exploitation of spectrum and insist that cybersecurity be built-in from the get-go rather than as an afterthought, says Rear Adm. David Simpson, USN (Ret.), chief of the commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

Electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), a finite resource, is essential to all wireless technology, from cellphones to smart watches and emergency communication networks. But the increasingly congested environment pits industry against government in a battle for access.

With the much-anticipated fifth-generation, or 5G, mobile networks expected around 2020, the two sectors are poised for collaboration, Adm. Simpson says. “We’re moving toward a time where everything is connected, and strong cyber security is crucial to maintaining the reliability and resiliency of our nation’s telecommunications at every level,” he asserts. “We really need to think about optimal strength, but we don’t want the strength of cyber security for all the kinds of services to necessarily slow down a new kind of application. The balance is very important as we go forward and look at new and imaginative uses of communications.”

The 5G networks are touted as a significant upgrade to the current fourth-generation long-term evolution (4G LTE) networks and are maturing quicker than some experts anticipated, says Karl Nebbia, director of spectrum policy at Alion Science and Technology. “The woes of spectrum have been generated by the success of spectrum,” he notes. “If things weren’t going so well, we wouldn’t have the woe, the concern and the worry.”

The explosion of the cellphone industry propelled wireless communications well beyond traditional radio communication. “Now it seems like everybody pretty much has multiple radio devices—from the old to the young—and everybody has multiple devices all communicating at the same time using the airwaves,” adds Nebbia, the former head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration Office of Spectrum Management. “It would be one thing if we were all happy just to talk on the telephone. But since we now want to do Internet searches, we want to do mapping, we want to do video downloads and so on, it has really driven the commercial side to expand the bandwidth and increase the speed.”

Progression toward 5G requires proper policies and smart exploitation of spectrum to ensure everyone gets a fair share, Adm. Simpson says. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed new rules, unlocked mobile broadband and freed up spectrum for devices to operate at frequencies above 24 gigahertz (GHz), once thought to be a no man’s land for mobile services. But new developments permit the exploitation of high frequencies for mobile applications—such as 5G service—with significantly more capacity and at much faster speeds than users now enjoy.

In October, the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) calling for industry input about flexible-use service rules for the 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 64-71 GHz bands. For perspective, today’s 4G LTE networks are built on bands within the 600 megahertz (MHz) to 3 GHz frequencies. The NPRM would make the high-frequency bands available using a variety of authorization schemes, including traditional wide area licensing, unlicensed and shared approaches, according to the FCC. It would provide a path for numerous platforms and uses, including satellite uses, to co-exist and expand through market-based mechanisms (SIGNAL Magazine, September 2015, page 27, “Spectrum Competition …”).

In general, the FCC has worked to foster policies that promote wireless deployment and innovation. “We have seen extraordinary growth and demand for wireless services,” Adm. Simpson points out. “We’ve made additional spectrum available, but also pursued a flexible-use regulatory strategy that allows providers to use spectrum resources to meet their needs and to develop and deploy innovative technologies without commission approval.”

Yet challenges remain. For example, frequency-sharing schemes require operators to determine if someone is infringing on their right to use that spectrum, says Kevin Kelly, CEO of LGS Innovations, which researches, develops and deploys networking and communications solutions for government and commercial organizations. “Awareness of the spectrum becomes the paramount problem,” he shares.

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