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The spectrum sweet spot: How mid-band waves will help power 5G wireless
A recent article from the front line of autonomous vehicles illuminates at least two policy areas that we’ve highlighted in recent months: wireless spectrum and prioritized data traffic. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Tim Higgins begins the story:
Some Phoenix-area residents have been hailing rides in minivans with no drivers and no human safety operators inside. But that doesn’t mean they’re on their own if trouble arises.
From a command center, employees at Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo driverless-car unit monitor the test vehicles on computer screens, able to wirelessly peer in through the minivan’s cameras. If the robot brain maneuvering the vehicle gets confused by a situation — say, a car unexpectedly stalled in front of it or closed lanes of traffic — it will stop the vehicle and ask the command center to verify what it is seeing. If the human confirms the situation, the robot will calculate how it should navigate around the hazard.
Computers may be poised to take control of driving in the future, but humans will be backing them for some time yet.
This is just one of many examples of humans doing new jobs in an automated world. Digital cameras are inexpensive enough to be ubiquitous, and broadband is powerful enough to transmit floods of video from these cameras. Together, they enable all kinds of new applications.
Last month, I noted the case of Aira smart eyeglasses, which help the blind navigate the world. Cameras on the glasses transmit real-time video wirelessly to a remote agent, who audibly describes the surroundings to the visually impaired. Testifying before Congress, Aira’s Paul Schroeder explained how an uninterrupted video feed was imperative for the service to be useful and, therefore, why this might be a perfectly legitimate case for prioritized data.
Both the Aira case and the autonomous vehicle case also reinforce the need for more wireless coverage, capacity, and robustness, which points toward the next generation of wireless, called 5G. As Higgins notes:
Most companies have resisted real-time remote driving because of concerns about dropped cellular signals.
Ford Motor Co. tested a remote driving system on Georgia Tech’s campus about three years ago, but the vehicle kept losing its 4G LTE signal, cutting the video feed to the operator. Researchers assumed the signal got jammed when classes let out and students started using their cellphones.
“If you lose one or two seconds of connection in a vehicle, you could potentially have just hit a car or a pedestrian,” said Bert Bras, a Georgia Tech engineering professor who was part of the program that Ford wound down.
See why we need more wireless spectrum? And more small cells? And better coverage, capacity, and robustness? The first four generations of wireless have changed the way we communicate and consume and create media. But the next generation, 5G, will also provide mission-critical support for smart infrastructure across many industries in “the rest of the economy.” The services that 5G enabled will grow in number and diversity, and often they will require real-time service that simply must work without fail.
One of the biggest near-term ways to get more spectrum is to open up and repurpose what’s known as mid-band spectrum — roughly the range between 3 and 6 GHz. And right now the Federal Communications Commission is finalizing rules for a new auction at 3.5 GHz, which is just the first step. In years past, mid-band was thought to be a kind of no man’s land of uninteresting airwaves. But with the advent of new radios and architectures, such as small cells, mid-band is now the sweet spot of spectrum innovation. The frequencies are just high enough to deliver fast data rates but also low enough to support decent range, measured in distance. It’s perfect for the coming 5G small-cell networks.
Opening the mid-band for new uses could unleash massive amounts of spectrum — between 200 and 300 MHz to start and eventually an additional 500 MHz. That’s nearly as much spectrum as is deployed in all of our existing mobile networks. So we’re talking about nearly doubling the wireless airwaves available for today’s familiar mobile applications, such as smartphones, and for all of tomorrow’s exciting services, too. And that’s even before we discuss the potential of the high-band millimeter wave spectrum that often gets most of the 5G attention.
Smart glasses and driverless cars are just two of a multitude of new wireless services that will be possible if we continue moving quickly on spectrum, especially in the mid-band.