Chicago is a great American city, right in the middle of the country, on the banks of Lake Michigan. It’s a city that is proud of its history with stockyards and steel mills — but it is also firmly looking towards the future. That future involves a project called the Array of Things.
The Array of Things is an ambitious plan Chicago has to place 500 wireless nodes all across the city. These nodes will measure pressure, light, air quality, temperature, foot traffic and an array of other things. The data produced will be available to the city — and the public — at no charge. From this data, the city hopes to reveal patterns that will allow it to better plan urban activity and learn to prevent problems such as childhood asthma, flash flooding and street congestion. Think of it like a fitness tracker, not for the wrist, but for the city itself. It’s pretty cool.
Accomplishing this is possible today with 4G technology. But it also provides a great glimpse of the future and helps to illustrate the possibilities of 5G. 5G services are poised to provide speeds more than 10 times faster than today’s 4G networks, with lower latency, and as a result, a whole new world of wireless opportunities.
But more than that, they will take initiatives such as the Array of Things and up the ante. Because although 4G technology has brought smart phones to our palms, pockets and purses, the benefits of 5G technology are bigger, bolder, and more diffuse. They will be felt throughout the economy.
Imagine, for a moment, that cities worldwide can significantly reduce commute times and traffic. It will take sensors in streetlights, roadside architecture and cars to see where traffic patterns could be more efficient and public transportation more effective. 5G technology can make it happen.
Imagine tiny cameras in the helmets of public safety officials fighting a fire. They could relay video back to colleagues just outside the affected area who could direct a team of firefighters in real time, enhancing safety for first responders and those they rescue. 5G technology can make it happen.
Imagine monitoring trees with sensors to identify drought before it occurs and when preventive measures are still effective. Think of it as the Internet of Trees — and 5G technology can make it happen.
To get from here to there will require RF spectrum. More than that, it will take new, creative ideas about spectrum policy that have not always been front-and-center in the 4G past.
To find spectrum for next-generation networks, we need to look high. Today, the bulk of our 4G networks are built in frequency bands from 600 MHz to 3 GHz. The 5G future will bust through the 3-GHz ceiling and create new possibilities for millimeter-wave spectrum at 24 GHz and above. With stratospheric frequencies such as these come propagation challenges. Super-high-frequency signals don’t travel far, a limitation that allows packing small cells close together, densifying networks at lower cost. In turn, this can mean enable service that reaches further into buildings at faster speeds than ever, which is especially useful in urban corridors and fast-growing areas with the greatest traffic demands.
Good spectrum policy involves a mix of licensed and unlicensed airwaves. We already have extensive unlicensed activity in the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. We are looking to expand unlicensed operations in millimeter-wave spectrum in band from 64 GHz to 71 GHz. The upper portion of this band was identified for 5G study at the World Radio Conference last year. But we are already looking at making the band we have identified available sooner, and making it unlicensed.
Creative Licensing Policy
With 5G, we can use a more creative licensing policy. The 3.5-GHz band serves as an example. Instead of a choice between licensed and unlicensed operation, we adopted a creative three-tiered model for spectrum sharing and management. Under this three-tiered system, incumbent government users have a primary and preemptive right. But we know they do not need access all the time, everywhere, so we created a secondary license opportunity, custom-built for smaller cells. Then, to the extent demand for small cells is limited, opportunistic unlicensed use is permitted by rule. To make this work, all three groups of users will be managed by a dynamic spectrum access system.
The future is where I started, so let me end there, too.
Example of the Future
The Array of Things project is an instructive example of the future. It gives us insight into the extraordinary things coming our way with the next generation of wireless service. That’s important because worldwide, we have problems to solve, resources that are constrained, and communities that need help navigating what is possible in the digital age.
We are on the cusp of cars that can drive themselves, streets that can be safer, emergency services that are more effective, health care that is more personalized, and more capability across the board — because we are more connected. 5G technology can help us get there, if we get our spectrum policies right. And that strikes me as worth the effort.
Jessica Rosenworcel is an FCC commissioner. Edited for length and style, this article is an excerpt from her remarks at Mobile World Congress in February. The unabridged speech is on the FCC’s website.