Fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks have arrived and a new SAFE report out today says it is time to start planning for them. In combination with new and innovative technologies, high-speed wireless networks will transform the United States’ transportation system and generate billions of dollars in economic benefits—but only if the FCC gives mobile carriers access to vital mid-band portions of the spectrum.
5G is a form of enhanced mobile broadband that receives and transmits data from cellular sites attached to a wide variety of infrastructure, including towers, street lamps and building rooftops. These dense networks reduce the geographic proximity of cells to compatible devices like mobile phones or vehicles, making them capable of transferring up to 20 billion bits of data per second—10- to 100-times faster than current fourth-generation (4G) Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks. 5G promises faster internet speeds, lower latency (processing times), and more efficient use of the electromagnetic spectrum.
In transportation, faster Internet connectivity will support a large ecosystem of connected and autonomous vehicles, sensors, and new technologies, like augmented reality displays, telepresence technologies, and the smart cities of the future.
Here are some of 5G’s use cases in transportation:
Creating a Cellular Pathway to Vehicle Connectivity. In 1999, Congress set aside the 5.9 GHz spectrum band for Direct Short-Range Communications networks that interact with other vehicles and infrastructure. Developers, however, have not yet deployed DSRC-capable vehicles at scale. As mobile technology has advanced, some automakers have started looking at cellular networks as another avenue to facilitate vehicle communication. DSRC opponents say mobile cellular connections give drivers a fuller picture of the overall highway environment and provide more direct communication over longer distances. Supporters say DSRC networks are more reliable, proven, and mature – demonstrably important requirements to ensure automotive safety.
Likely, DSRC and cellular vehicle-to-everything networks can coexist and may be best suited for certain use cases. Regardless of whether automakers incorporate DSRC into new vehicles, mobile wireless broadband will be a significant component of the connected and shared mobility revolution.
Improving Vehicle Data Functionality. 5G-enhanced connectivity will be necessary to improve the onboard data processing capabilities of vehicles. Automotive original equipment manufacturers are developing augmented reality displays, which can project real-time information like weather and mobile phone notifications onto a vehicle’s windshield, helping reduce distracted driving incidents. In place time-consuming dealer visits, the widespread integration of over-the-air firmware updates can let OEMs tweak software the instant updates are released. And with higher degrees of autonomy, the reduced latency of 5G can increase the viability of remote operation, allowing, for example, fleets to better control the real-time movements of medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
Enhancing Mapping and Wayfinding. Automakers are increasingly using onboard vehicle cameras and sensors to generate high-definition 3D maps of the built environment and monitor real-time road conditions. Compared to current 4G LTE networks, 5G will send a more substantial amount of data to cloud-based applications that create finer distinctions in mapping and navigation services. In combination with an extensive network of sensors on many vehicles on the road, these advances in sensing and 3D mapping will improve the precision of geolocation services, and lower costs for shared fleets.
Enabling Intelligent Transportation Systems. 5G can be a powerful tool to help cities manage existing urban transportation infrastructure by providing real-time traffic management tools, like dynamic tolling and signal control. Virtualization, or the segmentation of networks into private channels, can, for example, give cities and transportation officials high-definition and multi-perspective video access of virtually every traffic corridor—providing on-demand access to current and historical patterns. In a related development for the transportation sector, 5G can support virtual reality applications, lowering the number of workers commuting to work by permitting telepresence and new video teleconferencing solutions.
Need for Mid-Band Spectrum and Competition
At first glance, these use cases may seem like incremental improvements over 4G networks. However, in combination with one another and the broader ecosystem of technologies enabled by enhanced mobile broadband, 5G networks can be truly transformative–but only if they are everywhere people and machines travel.
The current transportation system is vastly inefficient and could be considerably safer. On average, the paper says, only four percent of household vehicles are in use at any given time, and peak utilization is about 11 percent. Motorists consume more fuel and space searching for parking, which also contributes significantly to urban congestion and lost opportunity cost for valuable urban land areas. More vehicle miles traveled also leads to a higher risk of crashes with motor vehicles serving as a major cause of death or serious injury.
Networks will require reliable and consistent connections to enable 5G’s potential in transportation and make the overall transportation system safer. However, physical structures in the built environment can create obstruct signals from reaching enabled devices on certain spectrum bands. Verizon and AT&T, for example, have deployed 5G in urban “hotspots” that send and receive signals within a small radius of a single cell. These networks use millimeter wave spectrum bands to propagate ultra-fast connectivity but offer more limited range. Verizon says its network can cover up to 800 feet around one location.
T-Mobile alternatively plans to expand its network using mostly mid-band spectrum, which would carry signals further and require less densification. Unlike millimeter band-based networks, mid-band networks can pick up coverage within a single kilometer radius of small cell site, making it easier for moving vehicles to transmit and receive cellular signals. As shown below, mid-band-based networks are best suited to transportation use cases and require less infrastructure while millimeter wave networks work best for homes and businesses.
The FCC is reviewing a proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, which, if approved, would combine Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum with T-Mobile’s existing 600 MHz band and financial assets. A merged T-Mobile and Sprint could offer a scalable alternative to AT&T and Verizon’s millimeter wave-based network that would differentiate the types of coverage available to consumers across mobile network operators. By extension, offering coverage at mid-band frequencies would provide a pathway for connected and autonomous vehicles to connect to 5G networks across large geographic areas.
Winning the Race to 5G
Interest in manufacturing and expanding 5G infrastructure is global in nature and increasingly pits the United States in a technological race against China. Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co., whose leadership have links to China’s state security apparatus, has signed contracts with governments and businesses around the world and plans to supply 5G equipment, software, and services to its many international trading partners.
China’s strategy of integrating military and civilian surveillance into a complex and interwoven global network of telecommunications equipment alarms U.S. officials, who feel China poses a serious threat to the national security of the United States and its allies. China’s government and telecommunications firms are aggressively pursuing the economic gains associated with 5G, having identified 5G network deployment as a national priority in 2015. Unlike in the United States, where mobile phone carriers competitively invest in new technological capabilities according to market signals and scale, China’s approach is top-down: the government’s plan pledges over $400 billion in 5G research and development through 2020. Consequently, China is far ahead of the United States in 5G network deployment. According to figures from Deloitte, since 2015, China has deployed nearly 12 5G-connected sites for every one deployed in the United States.
The SAFE paper concludes that the domestic expansion of 5G networks will require a comprehensive and streamlined federal policy. Policymakers and regulators should work together to eliminate barriers that currently inhibit commercial deployment by expanding mid-band spectrum access, simplifying regulations, and ensuring a robust, competitive, and differentiated mobile carrier market exists to expand 5G. For example, 35 countries plan to use mid-band spectrum for 5G, including China.
Failure to expeditiously deploy these next-generation wireless telecommunication technologies risks ceding global leadership to China and delaying the rollout of lifesaving connected and autonomous vehicle technologies.