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Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler debunks 5G myths

Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a new report to be published later this week, former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler knocks down some popular misconceptions around 5G, the next generation of wireless network service.

Why it matters: The advent of 5G has been sold to the public as a global race, but that framing oversimplifies the issue and opens the door to nationalist pandering and special-interest promotions.

  • "5G has morphed from a stepwise logical progression of technology to a meme used for political goals," Wheeler told Axios.

The big picture: As we have been noting for a while, the so-called race to 5G is actually many competitions in one:

  • Which countries get to set the standards.
  • Who ends up building the equipment.
  • Where the first gear is placed.
  • Who has the first nationwide network.
  • Who develops the key apps that depend on 5G and drive its wide adoption, which is perhaps the most important race.

"The 5G discussion, with all its permutations and combinations, has grown to resemble an elementary school soccer game where everyone chases the ball, first in one direction, then another," Wheeler writes in the report, first seen by Axios.

Some of Wheeler's myth-busting arguments:

  • Security is about more than Huawei. Heavy focus on fears of skulduggery by Chinese vendors obscures the larger dangers inherent in 5G's design. "5G is a cybersecurity risk because the network is software-based," Wheeler writes. "Earlier networks' reliance on centralized hardware-based functions offered a security-enhancing choke point. Distributed software-based systems, per se, are more vulnerable."
  • The race isn't the whole game. As is often the case with a new "G," there's a lot of hype driven by competitors' drive to win "firsts." But for the moment, Wheeler reminds us, 5G is only here in a few places and with only part of the eventual benefits 5G will deliver. Some of its biggest advantages, such as ultra-low latency or battery efficient support for "internet of things" devices, will have to wait for later versions of the 5G standard.
  • Evolution vs. revolution. 5G actually represents both, according to Wheeler. One could build a network from scratch with all of the benefits of 5G, but that's not the approach that will dominate. Instead, most of the networks around the world will build on top of existing 4G networks, making the improvements more gradual but vastly more cost-efficient than starting from scratch.

Between the lines: Spectrum is a key, though rarely mentioned, differentiator among the international competitors.

  • Early deployments by U.S. carriers have largely focused on the "millimeter wave" band, with good reason: It's fast and plentiful. But such signals also travel only very short distances, making them practical mainly for densely populated cities.
  • Full 5G will also demand plenty of midband spectrum, and only Sprint has a big nationwide supply of that, thanks to its acquisition of Clearwire years ago.
  • While other countries have made lots of midband spectrum available, the U.S. has been slow to clear space. Wheeler cites wireless trade group CTIA as saying that on average, other countries have made 4 times as much midband spectrum available, with China offering up to 7 times as much as the U.S.

The bottom line: 5G is important, but it will be a marathon, not a dash, and everyone — consumers, regulators and the industry — would do well to heed its complexities without succumbing to politicization and marketing hype.

Go deeper: Axios deep dive on 5G