WASHINGTON — Federal regulators on Thursday opened the door to the next generation of wireless services, making the United States the first nation to allocate a wide swath of airwaves to deliver super-fast 5G access.
The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to clear the way for mobile devices to send and receive signals over high-frequency spectrum that has had only limited uses until recent technological advances.
The agency also laid the groundwork to auction a large amount of that spectrum to wireless companies while allowing more open or shared uses of the rest — all with flexible rules in hopes of duplicating the regulatory environment that helped fuel innovation in the existing fourth-generation, or 4G, networks.
"By not getting involved in the technologies that will use the spectrum, we're turning loose the incredible innovators of this country . . . and with our oversight to protect competition, we ensure that the forces that drive that innovation and improved consumer service are alive and well," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. "This is a big day for our nation."
But the brave new world of 5G is still billions of dollars and several years away.
The FCC hasn't set a date for an auction of licenses to use the new airwaves. And IGR, a wireless market strategy consulting firm, estimated it would cost $56 billion to develop, test and deploy technologies to use the spectrum in the United States through 2025.
The fifth generation of mobile service since the first bulky cellular phones were introduced in the early 1980s promises to deliver data at least 10 times faster than today's 4G networks.
Experts said 5G is the key to expanded wireless uses, such as autonomous vehicles, Internet-connected appliances, virtual reality and yet-to-be-imagined applications. The technology also is seen as crucial to extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas that are expensive to serve with cable or fiber.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said, "There is seemingly no limit on how what we refer to as 5G could impact our everyday existence.
"A refrigerator that not only alerts you to a near empty egg carton, but automatically adds that item to a virtual shopping list, enabling a delivery to your door by week's end, without any action from you," she said. "Or remote surgery being performed in the Alaskan bush by a pre-eminent surgeon thousands of miles away."
The airwaves set aside by the FCC previously had not been thought to be useful for commercial wireless services and have had limited uses, such as satellite transmissions. But technological advances are making it possible to use that spectrum, which can carry large amounts of data much faster.
"We're talking about a network that is 10 times faster than your current network and supports hundreds of times more devices," said Meredith Attwell Baker, president of CTIA, a leading wireless trade group that pushed to open up the airwaves.
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"It's five times more responsive. It's going to enable real-time services that are really going to unlock potential for consumers and the Internet of things," she said.