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Who is using 5G?
by Martha DeGrasse 9/29/21

Amid the steady stream of carrier claims about who has the best 5G network, it’s easy to assume 5G is quickly becoming a mainstay of mobile connectivity in the U.S. It’s actually happening quite slowly, if it’s happening at all. As of July, more than 90% of US mobile data was still consumed on 4G networks, according to Opensignal. 


Carriers are working hard to get 5G phones into customer hands, but those phones spend a lot of time on 4G networks. When Apple announced the iPhone 13 series, the company said the 5G phones will conserve battery life by falling back to 4G when they’re being used for activities that don’t require 5G speeds.


So who is using 5G now? Private networks and public network slicing to support enterprise use cases have been named by carriers as promising 5G use cases, and these are starting to materialize. In Los Angeles, AT&T is building a private 5G network for the Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine. The network will use mmWave to transmit high bandwidth data such as medical images, and lower band spectrum for smartphone communications. 


Several other companies have announced plans to deploy private 5G technology, including John Deere, which acquired CBRS spectrum licenses and is working with a vendor to build 5G networks at its factories. Right now its plans do not involve a wireless carrier, but that could change, as the company has said it wants to deploy 5G even in areas where John Deere doesn’t own spectrum licenses. 


When it comes to carrier-led 5G deployments to support specific use cases, the most active customer so far may be the U.S. military. Just this month, Verizon announced a major 5G deployment that will span seven Air Force Reserve Command installations and AT&T unveiled a 5G installation at California’s Naval Postgraduate School. These will support use cases that would not be possible without 5G, like video telemedicine support for airborne personnel, and unmanned autonomous vehicles.


As the largest holder of federal spectrum, the U.S. Department of Defense is actively pursuing opportunities to use 5G. 


“5G technologies could have a number of potential military applications, particularly for autonomous vehicles, C2, logistics, maintenance, augmented and virtual reality, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems,” according to a paper released in August 2021 by the Congressional Research Service.


The DoD has selected 12 military installations as test beds for various applications of 5G technology, ranging from smart warehouses to augmented reality training to spectrum sharing. 


Federal spectrum is managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) while commercial spectrum is managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With corporations pushing the FCC to open up federal spectrum for commercial 5G, the two agencies are not always on the same page.


“The advent of fifth generation communications technologies (5G) has increased the demand for multiple different frequency bands, which has the potential to disrupt military operations,” the Congressional researchers noted. 


Private interests respond to statements like this one by asking for more information. They want to know what operations will be disrupted and whether there are ways to share the spectrum.


The Congressional Research Service points out that spectrum sharing would require the DoD to disclose when it is using spectrum, which could be complicated from a national security standpoint.


Like the private sector, the DoD is experimenting with 5G use cases, but the DoD has important reasons to not disclose everything it’s doing or planning to do with this technology. Nonetheless, the military currently appears to be the biggest single consumer of 5G equipment and services in the U.S. This is worth remembering as the NTIA and the FCC work together on spectrum allocation.


According to Google Spectrum Lead Andrew Clegg, who spent 11 years managing spectrum for the National Science Foundation, the private sector may not need to take over more federal spectrum in order to achieve its objectives. He explained this recently at 6G World’s 6G Symposium.


“We need to take a closer look at the spectrum that has been used by previous generations,” Clegg said. “Let’s see if we can recycle that before we start grabbing more and kicking the government out.”

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