5G key to unlocking digital future including virtual reality
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The term “virtual reality” conjures up a wide variety of images, depending on who you ask. Some think of a scene from Minority Report, or people wearing “goggles” at gaming conventions. The less glamourous but just-as-exciting reality is that this technology has the potential to revolutionize everything from complex medical procedures, to the way high-risk military and police training exercises are conducted, to immersive education.

We’re on the cusp of mobilizing groundbreaking innovation that can make virtual reality a fixture in our everyday lives moving forward. But before we can successfully create a world incorporating virtual reality, we must first implement a missing puzzle piece.


Queue 5G technology. 

The U.S. has historically been a pioneer at the forefront of innovation. America’s technology and telecommunications sectors continue to create advanced applications that can bring consumers and citizens into a truly 21st century world. And when it comes to the next-generation wireless network known as 5G, this is no different.

Industry has set a goal to make 5G a reality by 2020, upgrading from our current 4G network that was implemented in 2010. In July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted unanimously to approve its “Spectrum Frontiers” order, a historic move to open up greater amounts of spectrum, which are the invisible airwaves that enable mobile technologies. Many have dubbed it, including FCC Chairman Wheeler himself, the most significant step to date toward a 5G reality.

Why is 5G such a crucial component to advanced technologies like virtual reality? The answer rests in capacity. It’s easy to forget that much of our technology from the coasts of the Maine to the beaches of California are tethered together by an unseen wireless network. That network supports everything from your Pokemon Go obsession, to Netflix streaming, to—you guessed it—virtual reality capabilities. To build a network robust and strong enough to support these significant technology innovations, we must cultivate and deploy 5G.

Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as a snap of the fingers.

The road to a 5G world will be a lengthy one that must start today. This is because it will require state and local policy officials to ensure the proper infrastructure is in place. For instance, it’s estimated that the U.S. currently has around 300,000 cell towers in operation. To make the 5G shift, we will need to significantly increase this number, thereby requiring collaboration across all parties including state officials, municipal governments and even individual landlords and tenants. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And if successful, the rewards of 5G would be extraordinary.

We would spur greater innovation and development in the space of virtual reality, which is a burgeoning international market that will continue growing—with or without America’s involvement. Notably, this was a key topic addressed in a panel discussion I participated on earlier this week in Washington, D.C., at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. With a number of industry officials and experts in the field of virtual reality represented, the panel agreed: we have a come a long way on artificial reality, but we have a long way to go and must supply a network complimentary of this bandwidth-intensive world.

In addition to virtual reality, 5G will also allow us to unlock deployment of Smart Cities, which is idea of using the Internet of Things to connect citizens and technology to alleviate urban life challenges. We’d introduce into everyday life things advancements like autonomous cars, sensors on street lights to control traffic, wired buildings to manage energy use and more, ultimately creating a better and more efficient way of life for Americans.

The U.S. technology community is rich, continuously molding and modifying itself to support market needs and wants. Continuing to meet these demands in areas like virtual reality relies on resources like 5G.  Futuristic tech – like virtual reality - is not only coming, it’s here. Let’s make sure that we do everything we can to enable this technology to reach and exceed its full potential.

Chelsea Collier is the founder of Digi.City, an exploration of Smart City technology and policy, a principal at Intercambio Group, co-founder of Impact Hub Austin and a Zhi-Xing China Eisenhower Fellow.