New Report Says China and the U.S. Are Now Tied in 5G Deployment Progress

The international arms race rages on

A CTIA study finds that the U.S. has made significant progress towards 5G this year. iStock
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The United States has surpassed South Korea and drawn even with China when it comes to progress towards the next generation of wireless service, a new report from a major wireless trade group finds.

The finding, released by the CTIA on Tuesday, comes after the same study last year found that the two Asian countries had opened a narrow a lead over the U.S. in 5G deployment, measured by the amount of different types of airwaves allotted by governments, equipment construction and other hurdles cleared toward actual live service.

While true, smartphone-compatible 5G does not yet exist in the United States, all four major carriers plan to go live with it in at least a handful of cities sometime in the next few months. Full-fledged 5G service is expected to eventually reach speeds of up to 100 times what’s currently available and open the door to a range of new internet-of-things markets from autonomous car communication to remote healthcare.

CTIA spokesman Nick Ludlum attributed the country’s leap forward to major policy moves intended to speed up progress towards 5G. One was a controversial motion passed by the Federal Communications Commission last year that curbs the power of local authorities to regulate the installation of extra antenna equipment needed to broadcast the super high-frequency signals—so-called “millimeter waves”—on which 5G will primarily operate. At least 23 state legislatures have also solidified similar measures into law over the protests of city and county governments.

The other was headway on the FCC’s first-ever auctions of the right to broadcast said millimeter waves, which can carry more data at faster speeds but across a shorter distance than more conventional wavelengths.

“Over the course of the past year, what we’ve seen is a significant number of policy changes that have helped the industry much more than anticipated in deploying actual live 5G networks,” Ludlum said “Today is not the finish line, and there’s lots of work that both the industry and policymakers need to do.”

The U.S. leads the world in allotting millimeter waves and other high-band spectrum—which work well in dense, urban areas—as well as far-traveling low-band spectrum that best serves more remote areas. But it’s trailing far behind in the quantity of mid-band spectrum available, a key piece of a robust 5G network with wide coverage.

“Mid-band is that sort of Goldilocks band that gives you a lot of capacity and a lot of distance,” Ludlum said. “What we’d like to see to continue this momentum is to have a schedule of spectrum auctions for the next five years that puts more of that high-, mid- and low- band out there for wireless carriers to use.”

Expert opinions vary on the importance of winning the race to 5G, but CTIA and other industry interests say the app market and sharing economy made possible by 4G demonstrate the potential scale of business opportunities at stake for the country to establish 5G infrastructure first.

“From the perspective of the U.S. carriers, it is super important to lead 5G rollout so they all can point to some leading data point they can use for marketing purposes,” said Counterpoint Research telecom analyst Jeff Fieldhack in an email. “Sprint and T-Mobile were late to LTE (4G) and they bled subscribers for years.”

The Trump administration has said that reaching 5G first is a national priority, but the U.S. government has more recently turned its focus to the national security implications of the new technology. Washington officials have lobbied allies to bar Chinese telecom equipment and consumer electronics giant Huawei from building out 5G in their respective countries for fear that the company might give Chinese state security a back-door to more easily spy. Huawei, which has racked up more 5G contracts than any of its rivals despite the push, has denied that it would do so.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.