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Covington Internet of Things Update: 5G at the FCC, and What That Means for IoT

Thermostats you control remotely with your phone. Watches that track runs and provide turn-by-turn navigation. Cars that drive themselves. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a remarkable ecosystem providing innovative and sometimes unexpected functions. But as the number and sophistication of connected devices increases, so too does the need for the infrastructure to handle increased network demands—making the rollout and success of 5G networks critical to the future of IoT.

Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are keenly aware of the importance of 5G, and with that in mind are taking steps to facilitate necessary upgrades to both wireless and wireline broadband technologies and infrastructure. We highlight some of these initiatives below.

Wireless Infrastructure

At the forefront of many tech minds is the impending rollout of 5G (Fifth Generation) wireless networks. Why is this such a big deal for IoT? As compared to current generation 4G LTE services you may have on your cell phone to access the Internet, 5G will enable faster download speeds, reduce latency, and provide much needed additional capacity to handle all of the new connected devices that continue to emerge. This is particularly critical for mobile IoT devices.

One of the keys to 5G is spectrum availability. The FCC has already taken a variety of steps to make spectrum from different frequencies available for 5G use. Different frequencies may be better suited for some uses because of their characteristics (some frequencies have better propagation characteristics or are less affected by weather, for example), but as time has passed, technologies have evolved to make use of spectrum once perceived incompatible. Accordingly, the FCC already has taken steps with respect to spectrum availability in various ranges, but it has plans to do much more. For example:

  • This February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that he is looking to hold an auction for spectrum in the 28 GHz band beginning in November. After this, the FCC will commence an auction for spectrum in the 24 GHz band. These bands are particularly interesting because their close proximity may facilitate their use together.
  • FCC Chairman Pai also announced that in the coming months he will propose steps to make additional mid-band spectrum available for commercial terrestrial use. This mid-band spectrum could serve a variety of uses, including 5G.
  • The FCC just adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeking comment on a plan to make spectrum above 95 GHz available, which could provide an opportunity for 5G expansion by allowing for experimentation in these bands.

But spectrum alone will not be the solution to IoT demand for 5G; the FCC also is examining other aspects of wireless infrastructure to address capacity and speed constraints. The FCC will vote later this month to reduce costs and burdens on entities seeking to deploy wireless infrastructure. Among other policy decisions, that action is expected to include measures to eliminate historic preservation and environmental reviews of planned deployments of small wireless facilities. These measures may decrease the cost and increase the speed of these deployments, thereby helping to expand 5G.

The draft order proposing these actions notes the importance of lower-powered base stations, such as small cells, to achieving ubiquitous 5G. Such technologies will be critical to boost 5G because higher frequency signals (which may be used for 5G deployment) do not travel as far as their lower-frequency counterparts. Installing many small cells in a given area helps to increase network capacity by reusing spectrum, while also minimizing signal interference. Densification of the network through small cells and other means is one of the most critical aspects of the infrastructure for 5G. This process of densification will greatly facilitate the introduction of new devices that may require more capacity to function, as well as an increase in the number of IoT devices deployed.

Wireline Infrastructure

On the wireline side, the name of the game is backhaul. Increased demand on wireless networks and increased capacity to meet that demand will generate a similar increase in demand for the underlying fiber and other networks used to transport that traffic throughout the country. Although surfing the Internet from your phone or having your smart car interact with the Internet involves a wireless connection, much of that data connects to and then travels along fiber and other high-capacity wired network infrastructure once it hits the tower. So, while 5G may be a wireless technology, recent developments in the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau also are critical to a full understanding of how this technology will develop.

Last November, the FCC released an order addressing broadband deployment and infrastructure investment. In a nutshell, the FCC attempted to streamline some regulatory requirements to achieve goals such as expediting copper retirement (and encouraging fiber deployment) as well as simplifying the processes for discontinuing some legacy services (carriers cannot simply stop providing service; they must apply to do so).

The FCC at the same time made reforms with regard to pole attachments, the rules that govern the deployment of infrastructure through attachments to existing utility poles. One of these reforms was to establish a 180-day shot clock for resolution of pole attachment complaints. Such a shot clock is expected to facilitate infrastructure deployment, as disputes over pole attachments are common and now will be addressed more quickly, thereby minimizing their ability to disrupt the timely infrastructure deployment.

We are keeping an eye on developments at the FCC, as its actions will continue to be critical to a full understanding of the progression of 5G and the promise it is expected to bring to the ever-evolving Internet of Things.

© 2018 Covington & Burling LLP


About this Author


Thomas Parisi is an associate in the firm’s Washington, DC office. He focuses on telecommunications issues as part of the Communications and Media Practice Group.

Prior to joining the firm, he served as a Legal Advisor in the Wireline Competition Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission.

Mr. Parisi is a member of the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA).