Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, said the key to helping close the digital divide is to focus on 5G mid-band spectrum, not millimeter-wave. She stated that the FCC made a mistake a few years ago when it focused all of its energy on the millimeter-wave spectrum in the early 5G days.
Speaking to Axios national technology correspondent Kim Hart at a virtual event on Friday, Rosenworcel said that closing the digital divide in broadband access could add hundreds of thousands of jobs and tens of billions of dollars in economic output.
“If we just relied on millimeter-wave spectrum, we’d actually grow the digital divide with 5G,” she said. “The good news is in the last year and the last several months, we really recognized that we have to pivot from millimeter wave spectrum to mid-band spectrum. That’s the sweet spot. That’s how we’re going to deploy 5G across this country — because mid-band has a mix of capacity and propagation that is really ideal for this technology.”
Millimeter waves are airwaves that have high frequency and plenty of capacity, Rosenworcel explained, but their signals don’t travel very far. “So, what that means is you’ve got to have lots of ground-based facilities to make those signals viable,” she said. “That’s a really costly thing to do. If we just relied on millimeter-wave spectrum, we’d actually grow the digital divide of 5G.”
Two years into the rollout of 5G, about 50 million consumers have subscribed, but the reality is that 5G is going to be different from 4G when deployed upscale, according to Rosenworcel. She said that 5G, unlike 4G, is not going to be about smartphones. “If we do it right, one of the most interesting things about 5G will have nothing to do with your phone,” she said. “We’re going to move form just connecting person to person to connecting people to things and things to things in the world around us.”
She said that sensors in different industries and different equipment will connect to make the United States more effective and efficient in the things it does on a day-to-day basis — and all of that connectivity will lead to next-generation machine learning and artificial intelligence. “That’s where the real 5G revolution comes,” Rosenworcel said. “It will be far beyond just a smartphone.”
The acting chairperson said that, early this year, the FCC ended an auction of mid-band spectrum known as C-band, and is going to issue those licenses shortly. “We’re going to have another auction of mid-band spectrum this year,” Rosenworcel said. “We’ve also distributed more than 250 licenses to tribal communities to help them improve connectivity.”
The FCC is also talking with federal authorities about what’s next, according to Rosenworcel, and what additional spectrum the Commission can make available for 5G and mid-band. “We’re doing a lot, to fix where we were, and I think it’s going to help speed the deployment of this technology,” she said. “Moving to mid-band spectrum, which propagates farther — and farther is exactly what we need to do — and the good news is, we’re doing it right now.”
When asked about the future of 5G, Rosenworcel said she believes we all need a little humility about making technological predictions — and that also she believes in letting the market evolving to find its own applications. “Remember when 4G came out, that was just at the start of the smartphone,” she said. “We couldn’t have imagined the application economy that grew from that technology. We’re going to see something similar with 5G. But, again, if we do this right, it won’t all be centered on our phone.
She said that even though advertisements are about using 5G on smartphones, the most interesting things will occur in precision agriculture, manufacturing and healthcare. “When we’re able to monitor and identify what we need at any given moment with so much bigger clarity and speed that we’ve ever seen before,” Rosenworcel said.
“There’s a whole bunch of innovations and technologies that are going to develop with that connectivity,” she said. We’ll only see them there when 5G is deployed at scale and is available nationwide.”
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.