The Government’s Role in 5G

It’s been really interesting to watch how much the federal government talks about 5G technology. I’ve not seen anything else like this in my adult lifetime, although there may have been times in the past, such as the advent of railroads or electricity that the federal government took such an active interest in new technology.

The government gets involved to some extent in many new technologies, but with 5G there has been a steady and persistent dialog about how 5G is vital to our economic future, and pronouncements of why we must implement 5G as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the rest of the world. As I’ve watched the way the government talks about 5G, it makes me wonder why we never heard the same urgency for breakthroughs like personal computers, the world wide web, or understanding the human genome.

A good example of what I’m talking about came in November when a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to Robert O’Brien, the current national security advisor asking for a better government strategy for 5G. They claimed they are concerned that China is winning the 5G war, which they believe creates a security threat for the US.

I’ve been hearing about the 5G war for a few years now and I still don’t know what it means. 5G is ultimately a broadband technology. I can’t figure out how the US is harmed if China gets better broadband. If there is now a 5G war, then why hasn’t there been a fiber-to-the-home war? I saw recently where China passed us in the number of last-mile fiber connections, and there wasn’t a peep about it out of Congress.

The market reality of 5G looks a lot different than the rhetoric from the politicians. Cellular carriers worldwide are crowing about 5G deployment, yet those deployments contain none of the key technology that defines 5G performance. There is no frequency slicing. There is no bonding together of multiple frequencies to create larger data pipes. There is no massive expansion of the number of connections that can be made at a website. Cellphones can’t yet connect to multiple cell sites. What we have instead, for now, are new frequencies layered on top of 4G LTE.

New frequency does not equal 5G. The millimeter wave spectrum is faster in the handful of neighborhoods where people can go outside in the winter to use it. The carriers admit that the 600 MHz and the850 MHz spectrum being deployed won’t result in faster speeds than 4G LTE.

AT&T recently announced a significant cut in its capital budget for 2020 – something that is hard to imagine if there is an urgent need to deploy 5G faster than the Chinese. The reality is that the big cellular companies are struggling to find a business case for 5G. They are starting to realize that a lot of people aren’t willing to pay more for faster cellular data. Some of their other big uses for 5G such as using it for self-driving cars, or for supplanting WiFi as the technology to handle IoT devices are still years into the future and may never come to fruition.

The other Washington DC talking point is that 5G networks will be 100 times faster than today’s cellular data. That may be true in the tiny downtown urban areas that get saturated with outdoor millimeter wave broadband. I have a hard time thinking this is anything more than a gimmick that will never become widespread. A dense fiber network is needed to support the millimeter wave transmitters, and it’s hard to think that the revenues from millimeter wave broadband will ever justify building the needed network.

It’s starting to look like the real reason for the talk about a 5G war is to drum up sympathy for the big cellular carriers as a justification for big government giveaways. The FCC has been generous to the cellular carriers in the last few years. They killed broadband regulation and net neutrality. They gave the cellphone carriers the right to place cellular equipment anywhere in the public right-of-way. Just recently the FCC created a 5G Fund to give $9 billion to the cellular carriers to expand their networks in rural areas. The FCC has been freeing up every imaginable band of spectrum for 5G.

That sounds like that ought to be enough, but since these giveaways are behind us, I wonder why I’m still hearing the rhetoric, such as the recent letter from Senators. Are we going to be seeing other big giveaways? Is the government perhaps going to give billions of dollars to build urban and suburban 5G networks so that we don’t lose the 5G war? I’m at a loss to think of anything else that the government could do to push 5G beyond what they’ve already done.

There doesn’t seem to be anything that the US government can do in terms of developing 5G technology faster. Corporations all over the world are furiously working to implement the many new aspects of the 5G specifications. Many of the corporations doing the key research are not even American, and labs at Nokia and several Chinese companies are among the leaders in developing the core equipment used to transmit 5G. It’s hard to think there is anything the US government could do to help us win the 5G war from a technical perspective.

I must admit that I’m starting to cringe when I hear federal officials talk about the 5G war. It makes me believe that there more big handouts coming to the cellular carriers. I hate the idea of the federal government handing billions to these big carriers while we continue to have lousy rural broadband – which is largely the fault of these same big carriers. My response to these Senators is that we shouldn’t be trying to win the 5G war if that means losing the landline broadband war.