June 28, 2016 — At first blush, Chairman Wheeler’s SRO Spectrum Frontiers speech at the Press Club last week sounded really good. Free up spectrum now to be ready for 5G in 2020! Put Spectrum in the Hands of the Innovators! Get Government Out of the Way! Make America Number One in 5G! Maybe I am catching Rio Olympic fever (no pun intended), but it all sounded so good.
But the speech brought up a number of questions. Is it a good idea to sell more spectrum to the carriers who apparently don’t have enough money to build out the spectrum that they already have? If the carriers hold off on deploying 5G, does the government step in and sell the spectrum to someone else? How does the FCC deal with spectrum warehousing by those carriers that spent billions on the frequencies at auction?
And I am not so sure about Chairman Wheeler’s comments about our leadership in 4G. AT&T’s entry into 4G was driven not by the love of innovation but because the iPhone was bringing down its 3G networks. Even today, South Korea seems to be moving faster.
SK Telecom launched LTE-Advanced with download speeds twice that of LTE back in 2013, well before the United States. Two years ago, a PC World headline trumpeted “South Korea Wireless Speed Leaves U.S. Service in the Dust” with speeds for 300 Mbps up to 450 Mbps.
Tony Bradley, principal, Bradly Strategy Group, wrote in that same PC World article that the South Korean wireless providers do not use significantly more advanced technologies but achieve the speed with “a few tweaks in how they deliver service.”
“The broadband and wireless service providers have never demonstrated a willingness to invest or innovate beyond the bare minimum necessary,” Bradly wrote.
The truth is the carriers will invest in 5G technologies if they enable them to monetize their spectrum, whether its virtual reality, multimedia steaming or any of the plethora of IoT uses. They will do it because it is critical to their fiscal health.
To lead the world in 5G, wireless carriers must spend billions of dollars for spectrum, innovate new technologies and build out vast networks. At the same time that possibly one of them builds out a nationwide first responder network. And create shareholder value. To the degree that the Spectrum Frontiers initiative facilitates 5G, that is a good thing. But let us remember it is up to the carriers’ bottom lines to to determine when they move forward with 5G on a mass scale. No amount of jingoism will make it happen.