Houston’s a player in the race for 5G dominance

This article originally appeared on Houston Chronicle by Dwight Silverman.

Houston has a reputation as one of the friendliest city halls in the nation among wireless companies building out the next generation of cellular data service known as 5G. But at a forum in downtown on Tuesday, industry and government leaders called for more communication between officials and companies, saying the race to beat China to 5G dominance depends on it.

The 5G Futures Houston conference focused on the promise of what the technologywhich has superfast uploads and downloads with very little delay, can bring to its users and the economy. But participants also sounded a space-race like warning of falling behind competing nations who want to beat the U.S. to the 5G punch.

Government and business leaders fear that investments, jobs and new industries will flow to the nation that builds 5G networks first, leaving those that fall behind in the economic dust.ital Access for as little as 95¢

“China sees in the transition to 5G to flip the script,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told the gathering at the Hotel Alessandra downtown. “They want to beat the U.S. to 5G and thus beat the U.S. in economic development.”

The conference was hosted by the CTIA, a Washington, D.C.-based wireless industry trade group, and the Center for Houston’s Future, a local think tank. It’s the first of several forums the CTIA will be conducting around the country as the 5G rollout ramps up.

In the United States, the four major wireless carriers are rushing to upgrade their networks, which use 4G wireless technology known as LTE, to handle 5G. Sprint has already launched a 5G mobile network in Houston, and Verizon last year began offering a 5G broadband service aimed at home users. A Houston couple was the first to be connected to Verizon’s 5G Home, and were hailed at the conference as the first commercial 5G customers in the nation.

AT&T has launched a 5G network here, but currently it’s only available to invited business customers. T-Mobile has not yet launched service in Houston, but has turned on 5G networks in a handful of other U.S. cities.

5G is actually a stew of different wireless technologies that work together to provide cellular data service that is many times faster than LTE. It also is supposed to have much lower latency, meaning it takes less time between for a device on a 5G network asking for data to get a response.

Proponents say this combination of speed and responsiveness will create new applications and services such as telemedicine and autonomous cars that can “talk” to each other — as well as applications that have yet to be imagined. It also is a key component in the drive toward so-called smart cities, in which sensors, fast connectivity and artificial intelligence combine to improve the quality of life in urban areas.

And 5G backers point to the growth of entire industries that arose due to 4G — from smartphone app development to the so-called “gig economy” to online dating — as evidence that 5G can have a greater, and even more disruptive, impact.

One component of 5G is higher-frequency radio waves capable of carrying data at much faster speeds. Known as millimeter wave, they require many more cell-site transmitters than exist, and that they be placed close together to provide adequare coverage. That has challenged the permitting processes of municipalities, which must approve towers and transmission boxes along public rights of way.

“Those permitting departments have to work with every other carrier, and their workload has grown – tripled and quadrupled,” said Majid Khan, a managing diretor with Verizon, said during a panel discussion. Khan applauded Houston for how well it has supported the 5G buildout, but called for more more “communication and collaboration” between public and private entities.

Last year, the FCC stripped municipalities of many of their powers to control the placement of cellular equipment, citing the need to streamline the 5G buildout process. That ruling – which Carr described Tuesday as “getting the government out of the way” – is being challenged in court by two dozen cities. Houston is not one of them.

Both Carr and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who also spoke at the conference, warned about the dangers of China becoming the dominant player in 5G. Cruz said money, new jobs and wireless infrastructure will favor the winner of a 5G race.

“China has outspent us by $24 billion in wireless communication infrastructure,” Cruz said. “They have built 350,000 new cell sites, while the U.S. has built only 30,000 sites.”

But not everyone agrees that China beating the U.S. in a 5G race would be so dire. Atlanta-based wireless industry analyst Jeff Kagan argued, “You don’t have to be first to be a leader.”

“The United States is going to be a significant player no matter what in the world of 5G, just as we were 4G, 3G, 2G and going back through the decades,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether we are second or third, except for ego.”

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