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Nov 23, 2020

How soon some parts of the country get 5G depends on what the Biden administration does

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We're pretty far off from having the fastest kind of 5G from coast to coast.

We’ve been waiting for 5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology, for years. And the ideal is that it’ll eventually be 100 times faster than 4G and make technologies, like driverless cars and augmented reality, more sophisticated. But there’s still a lot the incoming Biden administration and telecommunication companies will have to do before we have the 5G we’ve been promised.

I spoke with Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He says there are several different kinds of 5G, and we’re pretty far off from having the fastest kind from coast to coast. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Doug Brake, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
Doug Brake. (Photo courtesy of ITIF)

Doug Brake: We’re still sort of in early days of rolling out this technology, and some of the most advanced flavors of 5G have a pretty narrow geographic reach. While that’s the most advanced and gives you the greatest leap in performance, it’s still relatively limited in where it’s available. The broad-area 5G that’s still being pushed out will certainly be better [than 4G], but it’s not as dramatic an improvement as the millimeter wave as they call it, the high-frequency spectrum.

Marielle Segarra: There’s infrastructure that needs to be built for 5G to really get off the ground in the U.S. How do you think the Biden administration will approach that?

Brake: I do think that there’s a lot of hope, a big opportunity for a bipartisan agreement on an infrastructure package that includes a significant amount of rural broadband funding. When you get out into rural areas, and it just no longer becomes economical just because of the population density, you have to build up so much more infrastructure to cover an even smaller population. It’s just a classic market failure where, given the tremendous benefits of this technology and all the spillover benefits to the economy and really our competitive industries, it’s certainly justified for the U.S. to be spending a significant amount of money to subsidize deployment of both wired and wireless networks into rural areas.

Segarra: On his transition website, the Biden campaign promised that the incoming administration will spend $300 billion in R&D for new technologies. How much of that do you expect to go to 5G?

Brake: I would hope at least a few billion. Usually, there’s a big time lag between the R&D and our R&D processes where you see universities develop initial technologies, and then that gets developed and taken over by corporations that want to invest in this area. So it makes sense now for us to be investing in the R&D, so that we don’t — I feel silly even bringing up 6G as we’re still in the midst of 5G, but we do need to be investing in R&D to be leading the way in developing the next generation of wireless.

Segarra: Well, on that note, in your estimation, how much does the federal government need to spend on infrastructure for this to work?

Brake: If we’re talking about rural broadband, there’s quite a few numbers that are thrown around out there. On the low end, some of the estimates from the waning days of the Obama administration said that it would take about $40 billion to get to 98% coverage with broadband that could easily be upgraded to stick with the demands well into the future. [And] $100 billion is out there as one of the key Democratic proposals in legislation that’s been drafted. I think we’d see somewhere between $50 billion and $100 billion set aside for for rural broadband that really could do a lot of good to move us towards a future where we don’t have nearly as bad a divide between rural and urban areas when it comes to connectivity, which, obviously, living through the pandemic has become just a critical tool these days.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris hold a press conference after a virtual meeting with the National Governors Association's executive committee at the Queen Theater on November 19, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
President-elect Joe Biden proposed investing $300 billion over four years for new, innovative technologies. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

Speaking of 6G, yes, companies are already working on it, and it is supposed to be even faster than 5G. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I talked to Doug about the infrastructure the U.S. will need to get 5G up and running, but infrastructure is only one part of this. The other thing telecom companies need is access to certain parts of the spectrum, as in — and we’re going back to science class here for a second — the electromagnetic spectrum. The radio waves that power our radios and TVs and phones. Spectrum is a finite resource; you can’t just make more of it.

In the U.S., the federal government has control over a sizable portion of the spectrum and decides how to divvy it up among telecom companies. The Trump administration’s approach to this has been confusing. The Federal Communications Commission usually is in charge of deciding which companies can use what parts of the spectrum and is in the process of auctioning some off. But the Department of Defense has been trying to lease out some of that same spectrum, which has created some tension. Doug told me, by the way, he does not expect that particular dispute to continue under the Biden administration, but he thinks there will be more internal tussles over how to dole out the spectrum we have.

If you want to go deep into the details on spectrum — what it is, the science behind it, some of the 5G-related terms people throw around — Wired has an explainer. Or you could just talk to “Marketplace Tech” producer Stephanie Hughes, who explained it in our meeting today using an extended metaphor about a rainbow and a pot of gold. I don’t know, but it worked for me.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer