Future of 5G development, rollout lies with wireless companies, not federal government: former official

Standards for 6G are already in the 'very early stages of design'

America needs to step up its 5G capabilities to keep pace with China, but the path forward lies in the hands of mobile carriers, according to a former FCC commissioner.

Google’s former CEO Eric Schmidt wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that raised the alarm over America’s lagging 5G capabilities in comparison to China. America's average 5G mobile speed is roughly 75 megabits per second compared to China's average of 300 megabits per second in urban centers, and Schmidt claimed that 5G speeds in Boston, Chicago and New York City are at least 10% slower than that of 4G. 

An advantage in 5G provides fertile territory for developing new applications and stronger economic and national security potential. Schmidt argued that Washington must prioritize the development and rollout of 5G and commit greater resources to develop the "digital highway" the way it did the national highway system or face a future in which China dictates the use of 5G. 

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But Robert McDowell, a former FCC commissioner and partner at Cooley LLP, argues that the success of developing 5G lays in the hands of mobile carriers, not the federal government. 

FCC Robert McDowell

Former Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell (Reuters)

"Let’s model what has worked in the past: The best predictor of future success is how you achieved previous success, and historically, success in the US in the American wireless sector came to be by government largely getting out of the way to let the private sector do its thing," McDowell, who served as a commissioner from 2006 to 2013, explained to FOX Business. "That’s how the U.S. built the best 4G networks in the world."

McDowell said the biggest issue is having "spectrum in the pipeline" – in other words, freeing up bandwidth for enterprise use. 

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"We were allocating spectrum for 4G in 2007, and the FCC had a watershed vote in July of 2007 to establish an auction for the 700 megahertz band," McDowell said. "Both Republicans and Democrats have come to love spectrum auctions as an efficient way to allocate spectrum and raise money for the Treasury without raising taxes."

Schmidt in his op-ed explained that America’s 5G and 4G networks use the same spectrum bands, creating "4G with sprinkles on it." The FCC under Ajit Pai repurposed around 5000 megahertz of spectrum, with only some of that bandwidth allocated for 5G and next-gen WiFi use, according to Reuters. 

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This year could see another auction, which McDowell called the 2.5 gigahertz auction, that would set up more bandwidth for use and hopefully expand the network.  

"But after that, there’s almost nothing – truly - in the spectrum pipeline," McDowell added. "Congress has to come together with FCC and Department of Commerce and other federal agencies to identify bands and set up more auctions. Also, the FCC’s authority to hold spectrum auctions expires on September 30, unless Congress acts."

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Biden’s recent infrastructure spending bill included more than $62 billion outlays for wireless and broadband infrastructure, including everything from towers to fiber, antennas and gear to help carry signal farther. 

The question that hangs over the development of 5G is the future of 6G: The standards for 6G remain in the early stages of design, and McDowell explained that it takes "the better part of a decade" from the time officials identify spectrum to the time they create an auction and sell it. 

Ajit Pai FCC

Former Federal Communication Commission Chairman Ajit Pai testifies before the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Communications and Technology Subcommittee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 05, 2019 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images / Getty Images)

But the potential that 6G represents could far outweigh what 5G is currently capable of. 

"The standards for 6G are still in the very early stages of design," according to McDowell. "Going from 3G to 4G was a quantum leap and gave birth to the App economy. We can’t know exactly what innovation will come from 5G or certainly 6G."

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"In 2007 when we were designating spectrum bands for 4G no one, not even the best and brightest, was predicting the App economy," he added. "So today we don’t know exactly what surprising innovations may be coming over the horizon or what’s coming up as the result of 5G or 6G.  And that’s exciting, and it can be frightening for some, in a way, all at the same time."