FCC's Wheeler Puts Pedal to 5G Metal

Invoking President John F. Kennedy's call for a new frontier, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is calling for a new 5G spectrum frontier and is putting some action behind the invocation.

Wheeler says he will circulate proposed new rules June 24 on what he calls the Spectrum Frontiers proposal, an effort to open up "vast amounts" of spectrum for 5G (fifth generation) wireless broadband. He also said he is scheduling a vote on the proposal only three weeks later (at the July 14 meeting).

Wheeler made that proclamation in a speech at the National Press Club Monday (June 20) outlining his vision, according to a copy of the speech provided to B&C.

Related: House Members Form IoT Working Group

Wheeler said that as part of the July 14 vote, the FCC will be seeking comment on opening up other high-frequency bands, and it would be looking at both licensed and unlicensed service, including what he tabbed a "massive" 14 GHz unlicensed band.

"Consider that," he said, "14,000 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, with the same flexible-use rules that has allowed unlicensed to become a breeding ground for innovation."

He said it will be the final piece of a spectrum "trifecta" of low-band (the broadcast spectrum auction), mid-band (3.5 GHz services) and now high-band spectrum.

Related: Wheeler Proposes Tech-Neutral Special Access Approach

"If the Commission approves my proposal next month, the United States will be the first country in the world to open up high-band spectrum for 5G networks and applications," he said, adding: "And that’s damn important because it means U.S. companies will be first out of the gate."

Wheeler said that Verizon and AT&T planned 5G trials in 2017 will help the standards-setting process and said the first deployments "at scale" should come by 2020.

He said that timetable means the FCC needs to get going now. "With the new rules I am proposing in our Spectrum Frontiers order, we take our most significant step yet down the path to our 5G future."

Wheeler in March said the FCC would try to wrap up its inquiry into freeing up upper-band spectrum for 5G (millimeter wave band) wireless and authorize its use sometime "this summer."

The FCC has been seeking comment on opening up those higher-frequency bands above 24 GHz for wireless broadband and is being pushed to allow for multiple uses on multiple platforms.

The FCC voted in October 2014 to open the notice of inquiry on using spectrum above 24 GHz for wireless and facilitating its deployment.

In April, Wheeler said the FCC's special access proceeding was also part of the effort to speed the rollout of 5G, though cable operators saw that approach as backwards.

Usually it is the journalists looking to dig up dirt on Wheeler, but it was Wheeler who was digging up some virtual dirt recently, he pointed out in teeing up the announcement.

"A few months ago, I found myself in a situation I never would have imagined when I became FCC Chairman. I was in Dallas, Texas; I was at the helm of an excavator; and I was using a piece of heavy machinery to dig up dirt," he told his audience. "For those of you trying to picture this scene, yes, I was wearing a suit. I was also wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles, and I hadn’t left the FCC."

Wheeler said the key to making that the norm, and applying it to things like virtual survey or learning and the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT), is speeding wireless connections, boosting responsiveness—"ten thousandths of a second is an eternity in computer-to-computer connections," he said—and "freeing up more spectrum."

"To seize the opportunities before us, we need the next generation of wireless connectivity – a fifth generation, or 5G," he said.

The chairman said cybersecurity issues will need to be addressed during design phase of 5G.

Wheeler is more often looking to channel Abraham Lincoln (he is a big fan and Civil War historian), but he was channeling Kennedy.

"On July 15, 1960, John F. Kennedy strode to podium at the Los Angeles Coliseum to accept the Democratic nomination for President and famously challenged the American people to be pioneers of a New Frontier," he said. 

He spoke of harnessing the power of the technological revolution and exploring uncharted areas of science and space. JFK’s vision charted a path that took us to the moon and laid the foundation for the internet."

"This July 14, the FCC will have the opportunity to take an historic step to open up yet another frontier that promises to propel our nation – and the world – forward. Once again, we are looking to the sky to unlock new discoveries and unleash American ingenuity."

Asked following the speech if this was a branding exercise, Wheeler said 5G was like a Picasso in that different people see different things in it.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.