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5G Explained

A primer on key questions and concerns around 5G, specifically in the context of North America.

An Overview of 5G Technology

  • 5G is the 5th generation wireless telecommunications standard. While 5G technology will build on components from previous generations of wireless technologies, it will expand the previous focus on consumer use cases--including functions like phone calls, text messaging, and web browsing-- to also benefit larger-scale industrial and government uses.

    While 5G network standards have yet to be finalized, the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) has identified major gains in 5G innovation, including better mobility, or the speed of communications necessary to operate high-speed trains or autonomous vehicles; lower latency, or faster access to data; and enhanced throughput, enabling terabytes to transit networks making possible capabilities like livestream video over wildfires. Through these gains, the 5G impact will be in supporting and enabling new applications in areas like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to benefit sectors as wide ranging as defense, manufacturing, medicine, and education.

  • Initial improvements toward 5G infrastructure will continue to rely on wireline, especially fibre optic cables, with new levels of wireless connectivity created over time. Enhanced wireless connectivity will require the allocation of new spectrum to support the 5G network, as well as more efficient use of existing spectrum through hardware and software innovations.

    5G technology will require the usage of three types of radio frequencies: below 1 GHz, 1-6 GHz, and above 24 GHz known as millimeter waves (mmWaves). The lower bands allow for broad coverage while the higher frequency bands deliver faster speeds and better quality. The question of what bands are used for different purposes is influenced by country policy, but also influenced by international convening bodies like the ITU. Countries with 5G will need to combine low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum to both reach remote areas and ensure speed of connection.

    In addition to spectrum, 5G network improvements will require innovations in hardware, software, and network architecture. 5G technology companies are developing massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) that will help increase power and efficiency at base stations. Small cells implemented by 5G hardware companies will complement these gains by decreasing the distance between a station and a user. The flexibility associated with network function virtualization (NFV) and network slicing will lead to better connectivity in 5G infrastructure, and also, potentially more secure storage and transmission.

  • The 5G rollout is already happening. While aspects of 5G including broad guidelines for spectrum allocation and relevant standards are set at the global level, the exact conditions related to rollout are largely dependent on each country’s 5G strategy. For example, spectrum bands are typically allocated to different wireless providers at the national level through a process that shapes how the 5G rollout timeline unfolds. Additional factors that impact rollout are the availability of key hardware and software components and 5G security concerns.

  • 5G networks use a revolutionary integration of software and hardware, but the complexity of 5G technology and broadened attack surface pose security risks. This does not indicate increased dangers of 5G, but does suggest unique security risks.

    5G networks have evolved from a simpler hardware base, to an integrated cloud, software and hardware framework. Millions of lines of code will run on distributed servers, changing with every software update. This complexity increases the chance of flaws, while at the same time making it more difficult to systematically check for all possible vulnerabilities. In addition, instead of the traditional centralized design, advances like NFV and network slicing mean that 5G software will run on the edge of the network, spread across many local servers. The decentralized network decreases the hardware chokepoints previously used for security checks and increases the network’s attack surface.

    Vendors across the 5G supply chain can exploit these vulnerabilities to install backdoors and kill switches, intercepting or diverting digital communications and turning off the network. The national security implications are critical, as 5G will form the backbone of future infrastructure, transmitting data for smart cities, emergency response networks, automated vehicles, industrial automation, IoT and healthcare devices.

  • As the US 5G and Beyond Act identifies, collaboration with mutual defense allies is critical for building a safe and secure 5G network for information sharing. Moreover, developing an interoperable infrastructure for 5G will help realize emerging economic opportunities enabled by the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement.

    North America was not a “first mover” on the last generation wireless network. But the continent eventually gained leadership in 4G technology. It did so by moving rapidly from a solid foundation.

    The Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) observes that the North America region shares the world’s largest market for mobile technologies – with a demand that is “around 50 percent greater than China.” By 2023, the GSMA predicts spending on mobile technologies and services in North America will reach $1.2 trillion – representing 4.8 percent of GDP. Ericsson expects the region will have the highest adoption rate in the world over the next few years, with more than half of mobile subscriptions using 5G.

    As 5G looms on the horizon, how can North America take advantage of its previous success? The region can band together to collaborate and make use of its favorable and unique position, while also maximizing implementation of the first-ever digital trade chapter in the USMCA. Ultimately, 5G is both critical infrastructure and the enabler of a new class of technologies and applications that will create economic opportunities and improve the quality of life.

  • The 5G race in North America is underway. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) includes “pushing more spectrum into the marketplace” as the first priority in the agency’s 2016 5G FAST Plan.  The FCC initially focused on allocating mmWave, in part because sub-6 spectrum in the 3 and 5 GHz range is exclusively allocated to agencies including the Department of Defense (DoD).  Critics have argued that prioritizing mmWave, which can only travel short distances and may be blocked by walls or other barriers, limits the value of 5G outside urban environments.  In addition, scientists from NASA, NOAA and academia have petitioned Congress that active mmWave transmission threatens weaker, passive signals required to carry data from satellite observation systems back to Earth.  

    The FCC’s second priority is to speed up federal and local review of 5G network deployments, and increase private sector investment. To decrease carrier costs, the FCC limited federal requirements of new small cell 5G deployments under the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act, and decreased carrier fees to Tribal Nations. To streamline local deployment, the FCC placed ‘shot clocks’ on municipalities to give approval decisions on carrier applications for small cell deployments within a deadline. The FCC’s third priority is to update regulations, including by promoting the expansion of networks by shifting Internet Service Provider regulation from a utility-based to a market-based approach, lifting rate regulation on fiber networks for business, and imposing ‘one touch’ requirements on carriers to expedite removal of old equipment. 

    While the FCC’s 5G FAST Plan was a foundational domestic policy, later efforts have focused on key aspects of 5G including security.  In 2019, the Executive Order on "Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain" first declared a national emergency and then prohibited financial transactions around ICT “in which any foreign country or a national thereof has any interest.”  Most importantly, the 5G and Beyond Act of 2020 was signed into law in March 2020.  The bill requires the president to develop a strategy on 5G wireless technology to ensure the security of 5G and future generations of wireless technologies within the US and also to provide technical assistance to mutual defense treaty allies, strategic partners, and other countries to help mitigate security concerns.  The 5G and Beyond Act also seeks to advance American competition, emphasizing the role of the private sector and encouraging leadership through participation in standards-setting bodies and processes that ensure both security and privacy requirements are met.  While recognizing the role of FCC leadership, the 5G and Beyond Act identifies a much broader range of responsible parties including the President, Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Homeland Security, Director of National Intelligence, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Secretary of Energy, and Secretary of Defense.

5G Beyond Borders Smart Manufacturing Title Screen

Infographic: Smart Manufacturing in North America

5G is the next telecommunications standard and will build on previous generations of wireless technology. But unlike previous generations that focused mostly on direct consumer use cases (e.g. calls, texts, applications), this standard will primarily impact business first, and consumers indirectly.

5G Telecommunications Tower

Wilson Quarterly: Coming Together

Can North America be the world’s new tech hub? How it implements 5G technologies and a new trade deal will be key indicators.

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