A revival of economic growth in the U.S. and around the world will, to a not insignificant degree, depend on the successful deployment of the next generation of wireless technology.

The Internet’s first few chapters transformed entertainment, news, telephony, and finance — in other words, the existing electronic industries. Going forward, however, the wireless Internet will increasingly reach out to the rest of the economy and transform every industry, from transportation to education to health care.


To drive and accommodate this cascading wireless boom, we will need wireless connections that are faster, greater in number, and more robust, widespread, diverse, and flexible. We will need a new fifth generation, or 5G, wireless infrastructure. 5G will be the foundation of not just the digital economy but increasingly of the physical economy as well.

Two big waves are driving the need for more wireless capacity—mobile video and the Internet of Things.

Video, which demands far more capacity than previous mobile applications, is changing the nature of wireless data traffic. Younger generations especially are consuming far more entertainment on mobile devices, while also generating floods of social video and two-way video communications.

Meanwhile, we are connecting many new types of devices to the Internet—cars, toys, packages, medical devices, remote cameras, appliances, industrial machines, wearable computers, sensors, drones, and much more. This immersive Internet, where everything is connected, is radically boosting the number of devices generating mobile traffic. Over the next decade, tens of billions of new devices will require new wireless connections.

As I describe in a new report, “Imagining the 5G Wireless Future,” 5G will be a diverse but integrated network serving a multitude of varied devices, applications, and services. It will enhance mobile and residential broadband capacity; connect a wide array of billions of IoT devices; and serve as the key link for mission critical applications like autonomous cars and trucks.

The capacity and coverage needs of mobile video and the immersive Internet will demand far more commercial wireless spectrum than is available today. Today, total deployed mobile spectrum in the U.S. is around 544 MHz. 5G will make use of newly opened high frequency bands, which could each provide 200 MHz, and up to 500 MHz, or nearly as much as all existing mobile spectrum.

Existing and new spectrum bands will take advantage of millions of newly deployed “small cells,” which are smaller than cell towers but more robust than Wi-Fi routers, and which can economically expand capacity and coverage.

These small cells will be attached to utility poles, buildings, and even homes. Connecting these small cells back to the network will require deployment of new fiber optic links to building tops, neighborhoods, public spaces, and office parks. Cooperation and encouragement from state and local entities to speed permitting of fiber and small cell deployment will thus be a key economic development priority.

5G will also open up a huge number of new business models on the Web, in entertainment, for vehicles, industrial services, and much more. Experimentation and flexibility in developing these new technology and business models is imperative. “Free data” is one such innovative model that should be encouraged.

Other government actions and policies can speed the arrival, and enhance the benefits, of 5G. For the Federal Communications Commission, that means  successfully completing the 600 MHz incentive auction, expanding the 5 GHz unlicensed band, opening the high frequency bands, and promoting flexible secondary spectrum markets.

But there’s also a lot that state and local policy makers can do to speed the 5G future. Pursuing flexible and cooperative strategies at the state and local levels to encourage rapid build out of wired networks and siting of small cells will be one of the most important economic development strategies of the next decade.

Finally, if we really want to supercharge the deployment of 5G, we would reverse the attempt to regulate the broadband Internet, including mobile, as a telephone utility. The reason the U.S. invested $1.5 trillion in broadband over the last two decades is because we didn’t treat the Internet like a phone network. We should once again encourage experimentation in technology deployments and business models, like free data, which can encourage a virtuous circle of investment and innovation across this huge and diverse new wireless economy.

Bret Swanson is president of the technology research firm Entropy Economics LLC and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.