5G: US is off to the races

While the ink is still drying on the FCC's 278-page order on Spectrum Frontiers, it's worth taking special note of this moment in time – one that has been compared to the magnitude of releasing the 1900 MHz PCS band spectrum in the 1990s.

Speaking as an old-timer who was there during the PCS auctions in the '90s, I can say it delivered as advertised. Sure, there were some glitches along the way, like alleged collusion during at least one of the auction bidding rounds and attempts to foster minority participation that only led to corporate shenanigans. But for the most part, things went fabulously well in terms of the amount of competition and the ability for most new entrants to get into the game, even if temporarily.

At one time, there were six expected competitors in any given market – although no market realistically was expected to sustain that number over time. A lot of competitors big and small obtained PCS licenses – all over the nation.

It spawned new players like PrimeCo Personal Communications, which started out as a joint venture of Bell Atlantic, Nynex, US West and AirTouch Communications. Back then, it was considered novel when its customers started calling their devices their "PrimeCo phone" rather than identifying it with a manufacturer. (Hello, Apple, 20 years later!) It was 1996, and it's where Lowell McAdam, Verizon's current CEO, began to further establish his leadership in the wireless industry. 

It was the Wild Wild West, and the whole idea – one that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler often references these days – was to have the government let the free market create the innovation while the feds just acted as the enabler. In fact, last week, Wheeler called it a proven formula that made the United States the world leader in 4G: One, make spectrum available quickly and in sufficient amounts. Two, encourage and protect innovation-driving competition. Three, "stay out of the way of market-driven, private sector technological development."

Combined with the White House's Advanced Wireless Research Initiative to spend $400 million over the next seven years to research and develop next-generation wireless technologies, last Friday was a "double rainbow" kind of day, as millimeter wave technology pioneer and NYU Wireless founding director Ted Rappaport put it. There's all kinds of reasons for celebration, not the least of which is all this millimeter wave band spectrum. If all goes as planned, it should provide an innovation playground for entrepreneurs and skilled engineers to create all those things we can't even imagine today.

Rappaport has noted this before and it's worth repeating: The pace at which the FCC moved on this proceeding is nothing short of remarkable. There were a lot of complicated moving parts and difficult questions during the proceeding.

To mention just a few: Would the FCC implement a licensing scheme based on using Spectrum Access System (SAS) and concepts adopted for the 3.5 GHz band? How would the commission balance the mobile industry's desires with those of the satellite industry? What about the even higher-band spectrum?

The FCC ultimately decided that like the 28 GHz band, geographic area licenses will expedite deployment in the 39 GHz band and that the 39 GHz band is a poor candidate for implementing an SAS-based sharing model, much to the relief of licensed operators. It will continue to keep an eye on the balancing act that needs to happen between terrestrial mobile and satellite interests, and, like some other outstanding issues, it will seek further comment on the use of bands above 95 GHz.

Sure, there are definitely things that would have been nice to have for one side or the other. Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, for example, objected to the spectrum aggregation limits imposed in the order and to the security section that requires a high-level statement of every licensee's security plans.

But all in all, it's worth noting that in this year of partisan "everything" and politically tumultuous times, the FCC reached unanimous decision. As Qualcomm's Senior Vice President of Government Affairs Dean Brenner put it: "There is not a Democratic 5G or a Republican 5G. There is just 5G."

Now the U.S. can rightly trumpet itself as the leader in releasing high-band spectrum for 5G. Of course, Asia and Europe aren't going to slow down, and they're certainly unlikely to cede the whole 5G pie to the United States. However, in one fell swoop, the U.S. just propelled itself head first into the 5G leadership position in millimeter wave spectrum. And skeptics once said this spectrum was more or less worthless. Touché. - Monica