Embracing the Innovation 5G will Bring About

Technology now is creating and disrupting on shorter and shorter cycles.  It is breaking down old ways of doing business and introducing fresh competition.  Look no further than your own life.

For years, banking meant walking to a brick-and-mortar institution.  It meant standing in one of those rope lines, getting frustrated when that pen leashed to the table was out of ink (again!), and ultimately conducting your transaction, in person, with a teller.  Today, Square, Venmo, and other apps let you send money or deposit checks from almost anywhere, 24-hours a day.

Or take transportation.  Not long ago, catching a ride across town meant locating a taxi stand, waiting outside (in the cold rain for many Brusselaars), peering down the street in the hope that a taxi would soon appear, and ultimately paying rates that were inaccessible to many people.  Today, Lyft, Uber, Blacklane, and other options are only a swipe away.

More than ever, technology is upending markets in which the status quo thrived for decades.  And this is a great thing for the consumers we all serve.

But it also presents a challenge for regulators and competition authorities.  Too often, we are quick to see the potential harms that could arise when a new technology hits the marketplace.  And let’s be honest, incumbent businesses are more than eager to leverage the regulatory state to slow down a potential new entrant.  Look no further than the work that the taxi industry has done to block ride sharing.

Part of the problem is a lack of vision—a failure of those in government to see the benefits that come with new services and technologies.  Indeed, there is an instinct among many regulators to “hit the pause button” while officials debate the merits of a new technology or service. 

They convince themselves that this is pro consumer—that they are only preventing harms to the public interest.  But this thinking fails to consider the other side of the equation: it does not give enough weight to the harms that come from blocking disruptive new forms of competition that can benefit consumers.

Not long ago, markets evolved slowly and over the course of decades.  So a plodding and slow moving regulatory state could be viewed as less of a restraint on new forms of competition.  Today, however, the sectors we oversee are marked by dynamism and transformation.  We must keep up with this pace of change.

5G is one example where some in government are still moving too slowly.  5G is the next-generation wireless technology that promises 10 times more responsive networks, at 100 times current speeds, that are able to serve 1,000 times more devices.  All of the life-changing technologies we hear about—from autonomous cars to smart cities, from remote surgery to virtual reality—won’t work or won’t work well without 5G.

Yet 5G can’t really be understood as just another wireless network or as an upgraded version of 4G.  5G’s performance characteristics and how it is built blur the distinctions between wired and wireless industries.  5G will enable more choice as previously siloed industries compete, which we know will decrease prices and improve quality for consumers across many different market sectors.  We need to let it rip. 

In the face of all this change, however, some in government succumb to paralysis by analysis.  This is a real danger that regulators—particularly those overseeing the telecom sector—must avoid.  While we rightly want to understand the impact that new technologies will have, too often “careful deliberation” is little more than code for indefinite inaction.

Take autonomous cars as just one example.  5G networks can help bring these vehicles to market.  Yet some want to hit the brakes and slow down the rollout of connected cars until they can analyze the underlying algorithms and AI that will make the decisions needed to power these vehicles. 

No one wants unsafe cars on the road.  But unnecessary delay comes with a cost too.  In the U.S. alone, there were over 40,000 traffic fatalities in 2018.  Connected cars can substantially reduce that number. 

So as regulators, we cannot lock in place an unacceptable status quo while the safety benefits of autonomous vehicles and other innovations go unrealized.

The bottom line?  Those of us in government must lean in and embrace the disruptive new technologies that 5G can enable.  And that means doing our part to allow the private sector to build out these networks of the future.  While the benefits of 5G are compelling, the network upgrade won’t happen evenly or everywhere unless we get the right regulatory structures in place.  After all, the largest cities in the world—New York or LA, Brussels or Barcelona—will see 5G almost regardless of the regulations we adopt.  But that’s not success.  We must deliver next-generation broadband and the economic opportunity it enables to every community.  For the U.S., this is particularly challenging, given the sparse population centers in our vast rural areas.  Smart infrastructure policies are key to serving those areas.

That’s why we’ve been so focused at the Federal Communications Commission where I work on updating our broadband infrastructure rules.  We’ve taken bold and decisive action to modernize our regulations and drive down the cost of building out next-gen networks.  These reforms are now helping to accelerate the introduction of 5G offerings.

The U.S. and Europe share the goal of seeing 5G deployed as quickly and ubiquitously as possible.  As we enter the new year and a new decade, regulators and stakeholders across the globe must work together to facilitate the transition to 5G and recognize that inaction will stifle the new innovations that can grow our economies and improve our lives.

Commissioner, Federal Communications Commission (FCC)