5G initiatives begin exploring future of the emerging technology

October 17, 2019
By: Ellen Marrison

A new innovation hub slated to open in January in Washington promises to connect 5G startups with investors and technology labs, while also creating a pipeline of jobs for students interested in the emerging sector. A separate effort in Virginia will become a testbed for 5G wireless security that is expected to accelerate cyber research and include 39 universities and four federal partners. Last year, the president directed the secretary of commerce to lead the creation of a long-term spectrum plan and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has since outlined development priorities for American leadership in the emerging technology.  But with no 5G network up and running yet, one may begin to wonder if all the attention is hype, or rooted in reality of a truly disruptive technology that will largely advance society. A recent briefing paper from the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy seeks to answer who is likely to benefit from this promised vastly faster connectivity, and how that value will be captured.

The promise of 5G lies in its power to download data at exponentially faster speeds than 4g, which could be transformational in its application — from instantaneous communication among autonomous vehicles to the possibility of surgeries performed by robotic arms under the control of doctors located far away. But the Berkeley paper notes that it remains unclear how quickly 5G will be deployed and how transformative it will be once it arrives. The paper, 5G: Revolution or Hype?, examines four critical issues: how network operators will build it; ways governments can use policy to make sure it gets built; its potential impact on network architectures and competition among computing infrastructure providers; and, 5G’s role in the rise of China, international competition and related debates over network security.

One of the current challenges of building 5G stems from the fact that the frequencies it requires can only travel short distances and can easily be disturbed. To build such a network would be extremely expensive and offers little return for operators, leaving those that were interviewed for the Berkeley paper to question what kind of strain it would place on major network operators.  That would lead to the second question of the role of government in building 5G if private industry cannot build the networks on their own, and the paper’s authors note that policymakers must balance competing forces with desired outcomes as they plan their 5G strategies. It also remains to be seen how 5G will change network architectures — whether current heavyweight players will become more entrenched or if other players will find a part to play. And who the dominant player is could have lasting impacts on geopolitics, with China already publicizing an aggressive 5G deployment timeline.

The Berkeley paper concludes that by asking the right questions, stakeholders can understand 5G’s possibilities and limitations and begin to shape a positive future. Those are just the kinds of issues that the Washington and Virginia efforts are beginning to explore.

The Washington hub is slated to open in January — backed by the likes of Intel and NASA, and partnering with T-Mobile, the University of Washington and the city of Bellevue — and will connect 5G startups with investors and technology labs to test their products, as long as they harness 5G networks. The partnership aims to encourage growth of the 5G sector and create a pipeline for jobs for students interested in working with 5G. 

The effort in Virginia, led by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), is creating a testbed that will include 39 Virginia universities, four federal partners, and 45 other regional partners to experiment with 5G deployment, use cases, and wireless security. The Virginia Tech press release notes that 5G will be “the fabric of the future” once all the wireless devices are connected. Yet such power contains security vulnerabilities, which will be the focus of the Virginia testbed. “For all the promise 5G offers, it also presents unique vulnerabilities. And in a world where everything from cargo trucks to home security systems is connected, security failures could have grave consequences,” the release notes.

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