5G brings promise of innovation tinged with conflicts

Both the federal government and private sector are laying the groundwork for 5G wireless networks, a highly-touted upgrade to mobile internet service that industry leaders say will bring about promising new technologies.

The goal of 5G, shorthand for fifth-generation, is to bring about networks that deliver wireless internet at much faster speeds and with increased capacity.

The upgrades have the potential to allow mobile users to download massive high-definition video files in seconds and to experience virtual reality on the go. Wireless providers are also promising that the new technology will bring advanced medical capabilities to rural areas through faster connections and allow driverless cars to communicate with each other.

“It will create trillions of dollars in new economic output, as well as initiating an era of innovation that we can’t even imagine right now,” Robert McDowell, a former Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), told The Hill.

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“The endgame is to get wireless networks to do what fiber networks can do,” Harold Feld, a senior vice president at the consumer group Public Knowledge, said in a phone interview.

The move from 3G to 4G brought faster broadband internet to cell phones, enabling an entire economy to spring out of mobile apps that led to businesses like Uber, AirBnB, and others. And many are expecting a similar revolution in the next generation.

These new capabilities are likely still years away, but companies like Verizon and AT&T are already doing initial rollouts in certain cities and regulators at the FCC are trying to encourage development.

But even in the early stages, the approach has already generated criticism and skepticism. On Wednesday, the FCC will vote on a proposal to cap the amount in fees that local authorities can charge companies for installing 5G cell stations.

The rule has prompted widespread outrage from mayors across the country who argue that it will handicap them in negotiations with wireless carriers, while giving a massive check to major companies. The Republican-led FCC says that the proposal will help the rollout by saving businesses $2 billion in fees.

But opponents say that there’s still neither a carrot nor a stick to get carriers to use those funds to expand coverage to rural areas or low-income neighborhoods that still aren’t connected to 4G or wired networks.

Unlike 4G networks which can be transmitted for miles by big cell towers, 5G signals can only travel short distances, so in order to build out the new networks, telecommunications companies will have to install smaller cell stations — about the size of a refrigerator — every several hundred feet.

And local officials concerned about how and where those sites will be installed are worried that federal officials are trying to prevent them from overseeing the rollouts in their own communities.

Gerard Lederer, an attorney with Best Best & Krieger who works with municipal groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, says that he predicts the FCC will be tied up with numerous lawsuits if it moves forward with the proposal as its drafted.

“The look and the feel and the public safety concerns of local government are being pushed out the door by the order,” Lederer told The Hill. “The order is basically saying that the FCC is going to be the new zoning authority for the country as opposed to each individual community which knows what’s best for it.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who's been championing the proposal, says he's not surprised by the pushback, which he believes is being led by major cities like New York.

"When you take some of the biggest cities in the country, they can both afford to charge exorbitant fees and still see deployment there," Carr told The Hill. "We are freeing up capital that can be redeployed to bring 5G and other next gen services to more communities."

Despite the squabbles between local and federal officials, supporters of 5G emphasize that the race to institute the fast internet is already afoot. China and other economic competitors are working towards deploying 5G and some say whoever succeeds in launching 5G first will have a major advantage.

“Whichever country is able to build out 5G more quickly will have that global economic advantage. We can’t really predict all of the benefits of this overall rising tide. But all those benefits will be pretty powerful,” McDowell told The Hill.

He said the U.S. reaped the benefits of being the first to deploy 4G, which “enabled entrepreneurs to have the high speed connectivity to experiment with business.”

Others, however, had tried to temper down expectations.

For FCC critics like Feld, the Public Knowledge official, the fight over the proposal illustrates how the industry is driving policymakers to roll back regulations by overpromising on what the new network will be able to deliver. The consequences, he says, will be that the “digital divide” between those who have access to the latest internet capabilities and those who don’t will get even worse.

“Any time there's a new technology, you have the industry start to really hype it up in Washington,” Feld said. “When we talk about 5G there are a lot of things being touted as possible, but nobody has really focused in on what they're actually going to be able to do.

“Five years from now we'll start to see what's real and what was hype.”