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FCC gives the land to cultivate innovation

On July 14, the FCC allocated significant new radio spectrum to help usher in the next generation of wireless technology — known as 5G — in the United States. This move opens up several bands (a total of nearly 11 gigahertz) above 24 GHz for both flexible mobile and fixed wireless use. This important step forward comes at a time when the global 5G standards development is still incomplete, but the picture of the 5G future is coming into clearer focus. Let’s look at what this spectrum allocation means for that future.

First of all, the FCC is taking an approach that will allow the U.S. wireless industry to lead the global development of 5G. While other countries have taken a command-and-control approach to developing such technology, such as the well-publicized and government-funded 5G demonstration projects planned for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the 2020 Summer Games in Japan, the U.S. is taking more of a homestead approach. This allocation encourages the wireless industry to develop the best next generation technologies for use in this spectrum. Of the new spectrum made available, 3.85 gigahertz is licensed spectrum, and 7 gigahertz is unlicensed. The next World Radio Conference is in 2019, so the FCC decided not to wait until then to make final spectrum allocation decisions. This will have implications in the U.S. obviously, but chances are it will impact everything around the world to some degree. There may be some disagreement worldwide on which bands are being used, but the FCC has definitely made a clear decision about what’s available in the U.S.

Secondly, the spectrum allocated is properly targeted for the development of the next generation of wireless technology. The evolution from 4G to 5G may be the most radical change in technology since the switch from analog to digital. The standards body 3GPP is referring to 5G as “New Radio” … and with good reason. The use cases we envision will require technological approaches that bear little resemblance to how wireless technology is used today. These New Radio networks will use cellular technology at the lower allocated millimeter wave (mmWave) frequency bands in the 28, 37 and 39GHz range to accommodate the licensed mobile broadband uses, while the higher frequencies (which are also mmWave frequencies in the 64 to 71GHz range) are likely to be used in conjunction with the prior allocation of 57 to 64GHz increasing the available unlicensed mmWave spectrum to be a total of 14 GHz, allowing mmWave unlicensed technologies such as 802.11ad and 802.11ay to expand their data rates and the number of users they can support. These networks will work in tandem across this range of wireless spectrum to provide resources that will enable 5G.

The final piece of this puzzle is the unlicensed spectrum in the 64-71 GHz bands, which was requested by the Wi-Fi Alliance and 802.11 to expand the current mmWave technologies. These seven new gigahertz of unlicensed spectrum is coupled to the existing spectrum at 60 GHz that the IEEE is currently using. Added to the six gigahertz of unlicensed mmWave spectrum that was already available, this more than doubles what was already in place.

So what does this all mean? I mentioned earlier that the FCC is taking something of a “homestead” approach to this phase of development – because “homestead” is a useful way to think about this. The big difference at this point in time is that the U.S. government has felt that they’ve fallen behind on some of the 5G initiatives because of the large programs in Japan and Korea (mentioned earlier) and China and Europe, all being funded by their governments to develop the next 5G technology. The U.S. really hasn’t done very much of that, historically. The current system we have, 4G LTE, is basically an outgrowth of the European-led GSM system that came from the 3G networks of nearly two decades ago.

With this move, the FCC is essentially saying that the U.S. wireless industry should take a global leadership position in the development of next generation wireless technology. They’re also indicating that the industry doesn’t need the FCC to lead the R&D or even tell them what technology to build, as long as there’s adequate spectrum allocated to operate the new technology. Instead of trying to lead from within and control the pace and trajectory of development, the FCC is giving industry a large plot of land to cultivate, so to speak. Whether that works or not, only time will tell. But there are historical examples of that approach being successful: For instance, this “homestead” process is how all of 802.11 got developed, and it has now reached ubiquity.

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