Imagine a future where patient health will be monitored on a real-time basis, in or out of the hospital; where trees have censors in them to detect rising pollution levels; and where products wirelessly communicate their performance to the manufacturer.

That future is on its way. But it requires radiofrequency (or “RF”) spectrum being available for the purpose—and more to the point, significantly increased amounts of such spectrum. This is the job of the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”).

The FCC is charged by Congress with administering the natural resource that is the RF spectrum. The FCC determines how much spectrum should be allocated for broadcasting: for example, versus cellular telephone, versus industrial radio, versus aviation and marine services, and so forth.

Based on recent technological breakthroughs, the FCC has determined to greatly expand the spectrum available for fifth generation (or “5G”) wireless services using frequencies much higher than those currently used for mobile broadband purposes (which are below 6 GHz). The new spectrum allocations are in the so-called millimeter wave bands above 24 GHz, and the services will offer very high-speed and low-latency mobile communications compared with current fourth generation (“4G” or LTE) services.

The FCC decision, released on July 14, 2016, makes the United States the first country in the world to allocate this spectrum for next-generation wireless services. In so doing, the decision will likely help U.S. industry maintain a leadership position in 5G technology. 

The new rules open up nearly 11 GHz of high-frequency spectrum for flexible, mobile and fixed use wireless broadband—3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum. In practical terms, this is more than four times the amount of flexible use spectrum that the FCC has licensed to this point, and it amounts to 15 times as much unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum as in lower bands. 

The FCC has also proposed to allocate an additional 18 GHz for 5G purposes. As part of this, the agency also plans to structure rules for machine-to-machine communications (the so-called Internet of Things, or “IoT”). IoT applications will include wearables, fitness and healthcare devices, autonomous driving cars, and home and office automation.

Companies are already testing new technologies that will use the additional spectrum, and work on global standards is proceeding. This advanced technology will affect our lives in myriad ways, perhaps not unlike the changes experienced by our ancestors during the industrial revolution. As communications technology develops, FCC decisions will likely play a key role in U.S. economic growth and global competitiveness.