Why Being First in 5G Matters

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While wireless-industry executives say applications that tap the full potential of 5G—self-driving cars, virtual reality and remote surgery—are several years away, leading the way does matter for a country’s economy, if the race to 4G is a guide. If the US hadn’t led the way on 4G, the country might not dominate mobile technology, and its platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat and perhaps even Facebook and Netflix might not have become global powers. 

“The Ubers, the Airbnbs, the Netflixes of the world came about because of 4G,” says Rob McDowell, a Republican former Federal Communications Commission commissioner. “No one foresaw the app economy coming. What’s exciting about 5G is that nobody can really fathom what’s going to happen.” Being slow to 5G, he says, would put “the US at a competitive disadvantage globally.”

But some 5G skeptics question how great an impact the new technology will have. For instance, William Webb, a former Motorola director of corporate strategy who is now a telecom consultant, doesn’t see huge promise in the technology. “5G doesn’t bring anything I can imagine that you can’t deliver with 4G,” he says. He compares the 5G to the Concorde, the innovative passenger jet that was a commercial failure because not enough people were willing to pay for the extra speed it offered to justify its expense. Autonomous vehicles can’t rely on cellular connectivity in tunnels or even bad weather, since rain or extremely high humidity could distort 5G signals even more than it does with 4G, he says. That means most of the brains of self-driving cars will be inside the car’s computer instead of over a mobile network.  Webb says that virtual-reality headsets and remote-surgery machines are more likely to be connected to Wi-Fi routers, which are connected to land lines that will still be faster than 5G. Like some other skeptics, Webb also says it doesn’t matter which country comes first, especially in an increasingly globalized world where multinational companies have offices everywhere.


Why Being First in 5G Matters