Thune Remarks on Future of 5G Wireless

“If policymakers want to ensure Americans have more gigabit broadband choices than just a single wired offering, I think we should focus our efforts on accelerating 5G development…”

February 9, 2016

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, delivered a keynote speech for “The Next Generation of Wireless: 5G Leadership in the U.S.” conference. Sen. Thune was introduced at the conference by Meredith Attwell Baker, President and CEO of conference host CTIA.

Thune’s remarks, as prepared:

Thank you, Meredith, for inviting me to speak here today.  

I know most of you want to hear from the real experts who are going to help make the next generation of wireless a reality, but I wanted to join you to share some of my views as a policymaker who believes wireless technology is just beginning to scratch the surface of its potential.  

Everyone here knows that 5G is the next hot thing in wireless … except no one is exactly sure just what 5G is.  

There are thousands of people working around the world to develop cutting-edge systems and technologies that someday might officially be considered 5G.  

Terms like “beam-forming,” “MIMO,” “millimeter wave,” “small cells,” and others will likely become part of the official lexicon the wireless industry uses to describe this next generation standard.  

But to me, 5G does not mean some yet-to-be written technical specification.  

Instead, 5G represents the not-too-distant future where unbridled connectivity meets nearly unbounded capacity, unlocking limitless possibilities.  

5G isn’t just the next incremental step in mobile speeds; it will be a revolutionary leap forward in wireless capability that will reshape the world around us and fundamentally change how we interact with that world.  

High-capacity, low-latency, high-reliability, and low-energy 5G technology means nearly anything can and will become a wireless device.  

Lightbulbs, wheelchairs, socks – even the bricks in our walls – will potentially become Internet-connected.  

But evaluating the possible impact of 5G by simply adding up the number of newly connected devices is missing the forest for the trees.  

Instead, we should think about what happens when the Internet isn’t just on people’s phones or sitting on their desks but instead is everywhere around them, flowing through dozens of objects.  

Imagine a wireless world where, thanks to multi-gigabit connections, download speed is no longer a relevant consideration for people, and any content or service is instantly available wherever and whenever someone wants.  

5G has the potential to make online connectivity as ever-present and invisible in our daily lives as the very air we breathe.  

Once the Internet recedes from our attention and simply becomes part of the fabric of our surroundings, the resulting innovations will make the wonders of the smartphone pale in comparison.  

Just as 25 years ago it was hard to know how much the Internet would change the way Americans work, play, communicate, and travel, it is hard to imagine all the ways 5G will reshape our lives over the next decade.  

There are some concrete benefits, however, that we know we will see, particularly the rise of machine-to-machine communications.  

For example, 5G will enable computers and experts to monitor the health of our nation’s infrastructure far more accurately, and in more detail, than can be done effectively today.  

5G systems will enable the collection, integration, and analysis of information that will be discreetly and constantly communicated by vast networks of sensors, automated systems, and other devices.  

Bridges and pipelines, for example, can be repaired before something breaks.  

This will save time, money, and lives.  

And we’ll likely see similar benefits when it comes to managing traffic congestion or operating mass transit systems, because transportation managers will have far more ability to react to conditions in real-time and to quickly, and maybe even automatically, resolve emergency situations.  

New Smart Cities technology, powered by next-generation wireless networks, could help governments better understand and address real problems that bureaucrats have struggled for years to solve.

5G will also have a profound effect upon communications public policy, particularly in the areas of universal service and competition.  

While 5G cannot eliminate the difficult economic realities of serving rural communities, it may help bridge the digital divide.  

Today, AT&T is working to deploy fixed wireless local loop service that could bring broadband to over a million rural households.  

A recently announced startup called Starry is promising to bring gigabit broadband to American homes this year using millimeter wave spectrum.  

Both of these efforts are still unproven works-in-progress, but these are projects being tested and deployed right now using current generation technology.  

Wireless deployments using next generation technologies could help bring new broadband services and new competitive choices to millions of American households and businesses, particularly those that remain offline today.  

5G will bring faster speeds, more deployment options, and increased capabilities.  

As you work to develop 5G, I challenge all of you in industry to think of how these improvements can help serve rural America, including the oftentimes forgotten parts of Indian Country.  

I know that rural markets are not nearly as lucrative as urban ones, but this new technology should make it easier for broadband services in rural areas to be reasonably comparable to those found in urban areas.  

I hope this will be something you all focus on.  

We know that companies and consumers alike will benefit tremendously from connecting all Americans, not just most of them.

5G’s impact on the telecom industry could also be profound.  

It is quite likely that the first time many Americans subscribe to a gigabit broadband connection will be with a 5G-based wireless service, not a with a fiber- or cable-based offering.  

University of Nebraska professor Gus Hurwitz testified before the Senate Commerce Committee that, within the next one to eight years, MIMO and millimeter wave technologies could offer ten times the capacity that coaxial cable can.  

According to the professor, “cable should be scared to death” because this technology will “revolutionize telecommunications.”

And we’re not just talking about bringing faster speeds to people’s smartphones.  

Professor Hurwitz suggests this technology could “potentially allow for the entry of several new broadband competitors into every market in the United States, offering service at speeds comparable to (or even exceeding) that of cable.”  

If his vision of the future comes to pass, all of our assumptions about market structure and competition in the broadband sector could be completely upended – and Starry may well be the first piece of evidence that the future is now.  

Some people today, many of them at the FCC, have spent a lot of time trying to convince us there is a broadband monopoly and that only government intervention can protect consumers, drive innovation, and create competition.  

These people tell us that, if you don’t have a fiber optic wire going into your house, or maybe a coaxial cable at worst, then there’s no way you can have a real broadband experience.  

These same people tell us wireless does not, and never will, compete with this monopoly of wires.  

But tell that to the dozens of wireless companies and foreign governments around the world racing to bring ultra-high-speed, gigabit wireless Internet services to market within the next four or five years.  

Tell that to the cable companies who realize they are already in a competitive cage match with wireless providers.  

Now, I don’t want to be too Pollyanna-ish about how much next-gen wireless technology could change the American telecom industry.  

But if policymakers want to ensure Americans have more gigabit broadband choices than just a single wired offering, I think we should focus our efforts on accelerating 5G development, instead of worrying about micromanaging cable companies or messing around with government-owned broadband providers.  

That’s exactly what people in Asia and Europe are doing right now.  

The rest of the world knows they can’t catch up to us in 4G, so they are working hard to leapfrog the U.S. and instead take the lead in 5G.  

But as today’s event makes clear, America’s wireless industry is not going to cede our crown without a fight.  

But you all can’t do it alone.  

Policymakers like me cannot be complacent and think that yesterday’s laws are a perfect fit for the future because the last two decades of wireless policy have been so successful.  

We too need to evolve, and do our work to bring about the next generation of wireless policy.  

And as many of you know, that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do over the last several months as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.  

My committee has held hearings and met with stakeholders to look at what policies may be necessary to help keep the United States at the forefront of wireless innovation.  

As I see it, there are three areas where Congress should focus its legislative attention.  

First, we need to improve how the federal government, which is the single largest spectrum holder in the country, manages and utilizes its own airwaves.  

Federal agencies already share some of their spectrum with the private sector, but more needs to be done to encourage them to relinquish or share additional bands.  

And while this is a complex challenge, it does not need to be an antagonistic effort.  

Like the private sector, federal agencies’ wireless needs grow each year.  But by aligning incentives and utilizing newer technologies, we may be able to find win-win solutions that benefit everyone.  

The second area we need to focus on is identifying specific bands that can be opened up for private use, both licensed and unlicensed.  

While creating the right spectrum-management incentives for the federal government will help, history shows that Congress is often the most effective facilitator in bringing more wireless bands to the marketplace.  

Lastly, we need to examine ways to reduce the cost of deploying wireless services.  

Freeing up more spectrum is one way to do that, but there are other legal and regulatory barriers that make it more expensive to bring new services to the public.  

Helping to get government at every level out of the way of wireless deployment will only accelerate how soon Americans will benefit from 5G.  

I have been working to address all three of these areas in a draft bill called the MOBILE NOW Act.  

This legislation will ensure hundreds of megahertz of spectrum are made available for commercial use by the year 2020, the same year many people expect to see the 5G standard formally adopted.  

The bill would cut through much of the bureaucratic red tape that makes it difficult to build wireless facilities on federal property, and it will direct the FCC to take action on streamlining regulations affecting small cell networks.  

Perhaps most importantly, MOBILE NOW would push the government to seriously examine millimeter wave frequencies to determine which are most suitable for 5G purposes.  

These high-frequency bands will be critical in securing the bandwidth needed to fuel multi-gigabit Internet speeds.

As a side note, one of the things I have learned over the last few years working on wireless issues is that the days of easy spectrum are over.  

In the past, whenever Congress needed a little more money or wanted to turbo boost wireless innovation, we could pick a band from various underutilized swaths of spectrum and then auction it for tens of billions of dollars.  

Of course, it’s never been that easy.  

But I can’t exaggerate how much more difficult it is today to find spectrum that can be easily repurposed for broadband.  

Spectrum demands for broadband and other wireless services have significantly increased over the last twenty years.  

As a result, the bands between 600 megahertz and six gigahertz have gotten extremely crowded.  

The Congressional Budget Office’s scoring process also makes it much more difficult today to build up the same budgetary momentum that wireless bills enjoyed in the past.  

This doesn’t mean Congress should give up on writing and passing wireless legislation.  

It just means we all have to reset our expectations a little bit and work even harder to do what must be done.  

The MOBILE NOW Act will build on the work Congress did in last year’s Spectrum Pipeline Act.  

And while 5G may still be years away from reality, these are the kinds of incremental steps forward that we need to bring the future closer to us today.  

Ranking Member Bill Nelson and I are close to finalizing the details of the MOBILE NOW Act, and we hope to be able to introduce the bipartisan bill this week.  

Our colleagues in the House are also working on their own wireless legislation, and I am confident we should be able to marry up our efforts and enact a good, bipartisan, pro-growth bill.  

At the end of the day, however, it will be the engineers and the entrepreneurs and the innovators who will determine what the wireless future holds.  

The best that government can do is try to facilitate your success while making sure we are not accidentally standing in your way.  

I am excited to watch how 5G will develop over the coming years, and I am eager to do my small part in helping make it a reality.  

Thank you.