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Tomorrow's 5G networks drive today's airwave scramble

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The scramble among mobile carriers to amass airwaves for fifth generation (or 5G) wireless networks is picking up steam — and the frenetic pace will continue, even as industry players promise to begin rolling out 5G networks to consumers as soon as next year.

Why it matters: Regulators are rushing to make more spectrum available for what the industry promises will be super-fast speeds and quick response times perfect for applications like virtual reality and self-driving cars.

The big picture: There is no single approach to bringing 5G connections to consumers. Effectively, wireless carriers intend to cobble together chunks of different kinds of airwaves to build cohesive networks.

The high-band spectrum: These are airwaves that deliver the key promises of 5G — high speeds, low latency — but with a catch: they can't go that far. That means they’re best suited to dense environments, like cities, where carriers can group small antennas closely together to blanket an area with signal.

  • The Federal Communications Commission plans to auction swathes of these airwaves to carriers later this year.
  • There are other groups of high-frequency airwaves that could be used by providers, according to a wireless executive interviewed by Axios, meaning that the effort to open them up could continue.

Mid-band spectrum: This is where carriers will turn to make up for the coverage gaps in the dense but narrow high-band networks.

  • These airwaves can also handle more traffic at any given time compared to current wireless networks, making it possible to deliver some of what providers have promised with 5G while also covering a wider area than the high-frequency airwaves.
  • With a vote this month, the FCC may formally consider ways to expand how providers can use a section of mid-level spectrum.

Lower-frequency airwaves: These aren't typically seen as useful for 5G, but as such signals carry far and help with rural coverage, there are still some efforts underfoot to apply them to the race.

  • T-Mobile bought large portions of these airwaves in an auction that concluded last year, and says it can use them to bolster a 5G network that also includes higher-frequency airwaves.
  • Others are skeptical. “The channel sizes just aren’t big enough to provide a big 5G benefit as compared to LTE,” said the wireless executive.

Yes, but: 5G, for now, is an abstract bundle of standards and technologies that could one day deliver the ultra-fast mobile data carriers have promised. But it hasn’t yet been commercially deployed, and its structure remains a work in progress.

  • T-Mobile and Sprint, however, have made the competition for 5G a key part of their argument for why they should be able to merge.

The scramble to get to 5G has also been highlighted lately by concerns aired by President Trump’s circle that the United States would be in a better position against China with a centralized — and maybe nationalized — 5G network. For now, that is not the network U.S. telecoms are building, and it would take some radical shifts in both technology and policy to get there.

Go deeper: Our primer on how 5G works