Wheeler: U.S. will allocate 5G spectrum 'faster than any nation on the planet'

During a Senate committee hearing Wednesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler promised that the U.S. will lead in 5G and allocate spectrum "faster than any nation on the planet."

tom wheeler


Appearing as part of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation's hearing chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), Wheeler said he wants to make it sure that "everybody understands, there's a difference between the way we approach 5G spectrum and the way the rest of the world" approaches it.

Wheeler and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn were at last week's Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, Spain, where 5G was a popular topic of discussion. The FCC already has a proceeding underway, known as the Spectrum Frontiers rulemaking, to make 5G spectrum available and that proceeding will close this summer, Wheeler said, adding: "We will then get out of the way and let innovation and competition reign."

Wheeler also said he's been approached by "various other governments saying, 'you need to wait until there are standards,' and it's not our philosophy to engage in such industrial policy. We are world leaders in 4G because of the fact that we made spectrum available and we let competition and innovation reign, and I believe that is the same strategy that will bring us to world leadership in 5G."

In the U.S., Verizon (NYSE: VZ), which led in LTE deployment, has been particularly bold about its intentions to deploy 5G and not wait for standards to be written. During an investor conference this week, Verizon CFO Fran Shammo reiterated Verizon's eagerness to deploy 5G services, noting that the carrier is currently conducting trials of next-generation technologies in five cities. Verizon is "trying to get the FCC to clear the spectrum," for such services, he said, adding that 5G could be commercially launched sometime in 2017.

In her prepared remarks before the Senate committee, Rosenworcel said what she learned from attending MWC is the U.S. has work to do to stay in the technology lead, and it's essential that the FCC complete its millimeter wave spectrum rulemaking this year and lead the way with the 28 GHz band. While propagation at the higher frequencies is a challenge, "we can turn this limitation into a strength if we combine these stratospheric frequencies with dense networks of small cells," she said. "This will enable us to deliver wireless speeds more than 10 times higher than what we have today… The race to 5G is on -- and our counterparts in Europe and Asia are already making progress. So it's essential that the FCC get going."

Commissioner Michael O'Rielly acknowledged in prepared remarks the need for the U.S. to remain a leader in 5G, but he reiterated concerns with the outcome of the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-15) in November last year. Although he only attended one week of the conference, he said it was clear that some attending nations participated in "parliamentary games for the sole purpose of protectionism." Lost in the process was "a recognition of the need to meet the spectrum demands of wireless providers – here and abroad," he said.

Committee members grilled Wheeler and the other four commissioners about the work they've been doing and plan to do on a range of topics, including set-top box competition and making more broadband available for rural areas. Of course, 600 MHz spectrum is due to be released after the world's first incentive auction kicks off March 29. The FCC plans to host a workshop and webinar next week and later allow participants to conduct practice sessions to test and stress the system before the event actually starts.  

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