FCC Chairman: Path to 5G Still Rife With Challenges

Support for 5G will have to be earned from small governments, with the focus on how the faster network can help communities, he said.

Tom Wheeler, FCC, 5G, CTIA Super Mobility 2016, telecoms, wireless, mobile networks, smartphones

LAS VEGAS—Today's 4G mobile networks are fast and offer more performance than previous iterations, but the upcoming 5G networks will be so much faster and offer far more capabilities that the possibilities are almost endless, according to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

But to get there, many key steps still remain, including getting local officials in municipalities across the nation to agree to the installation of 5G equipment to support the higher speeds and greater productivity that the next-generation wireless systems will offer, Wheeler said in the opening keynote at the CTIA Super Mobility 2016 conference at the Sands Expo Center.

To do that, said Wheeler, the wireless industry needs "to tell the story of what 5G is—and not just in terms of technology, but as deliverables that mean something to real people," he said. "We will be unsuccessful in dealing with [not-in-my-backyard critics] and the recalcitrance of local authorities if all we talk about is engineering. We may all love the fabulous engineering in 5G, but if we want the technology to be successfully deployed, we need to talk about its benefits for people and their communities."

All of this comes into play, he said, because while there are just over 200,000 cell towers in the United States, millions of small cell sites will be required for the deployment of 5G and that means that planning and locating them will take the understanding and cooperation of small governments across the country. "If siting for a small cell takes as long and costs as much as siting for a cell tower, few communities will ever have the benefits of 5G," Wheeler warned. "We recognize that this is a major concern and are committed to working to lessen these burdens and costs to ensure that 5G is available nationwide, while respecting the vital role that the communities themselves play in the siting process."

The nature of 5G technology "makes the review and approval by community siting authorities, and the associated costs and fees, all the more critical," he said. "We have to help leaders at the local level—and all levels for that matter—understand that 5G will make the internet of things real. But even talking about IoT is too obtuse. Let's talk about the benefits of smart-city energy grids, safer transportation networks, and new opportunities to improve health care. Let's paint the picture of how 5G will unleash immersive education and entertainment industries, and how 5G will unlock new ways for local employers to grow, whether it's a small specialty shop or a large factory, creating new jobs and improving services for the community."

By reframing the efforts as beneficial to the public, business, education and local health facilities, 5G will be an easier sell, he said. "5G is not a technology. It is a revolution."

What also needs to be stressed to local governments and others, said Wheeler, is that "the nature of 5G technology doesn't just mean more antenna sites, it also means that without such sites the benefits of 5G may be sharply diminished."

Past neighborhood battles about cell phone towers "didn't necessarily mean sacrificing the advantages of obtaining service from a distant cell site," said Wheeler. "With the anticipated 5G architecture, that would appear to be less feasible, perhaps much less feasible" if opponents want to block the installation of needed antenna equipment.

One possibility might come from past history in the wireless industry, said Wheeler, when in 2001 Cingular and T-Mobile undertook a joint venture called Empire, which let them share each other's spectrum and infrastructure in three states. That enabled both companies to quickly fill coverage needs while avoiding the costs of building out redundant infrastructure, said Wheeler. "The deal was dissolved when Cingular purchased AT&T Wireless, but it was considered a success."

Wheeler said he's "not endorsing shared infrastructure in all circumstances, and [is] certainly not opening the door to consolidation. But I am saying that if we're talking about thousands of antennas in a city, and you've got four carriers, and we are serious about leading the world in 5G deployment in our very large and spread-out country, then we ought to explore creative options on how best to build that infrastructure."

To help out, the FCC "is committed to cutting red tape. We've streamlined our environmental and historic preservation rules, and tightened our 'shot clock' for siting application reviews," he said. The agency is also working hard to make wireless spectrum available for the development and expansion of 5G capabilities, he said.

Security and privacy for the faster 5G networks will also be critical, as will the development of 5G infrastructure and capabilities in rural parts of the nation, he said. "The bottom line is that there is a road map to chart our 5G future. And now is the time to make it happen. Let's lead the world in 5G deployment the way we led the world in 4G, giving U.S. developers a home field advantage in creating the apps and services of tomorrow."