Joe Biden’s election as the next US president may have sparked fierce debate over the depth of Australia’s commitment to climate change, but the promise of hundreds of billions of dollars in US innovation funding suggests that next year’s 5G auctions will be crucial in helping Australian 5G services keep pace with world benchmarks.

From April next year, the Morrison Government has announced, spectrum auctions will give Australian telecommunications providers their first bite at the 26GHz radiofrequency ‘high-band’ spectrum used by next-generation millimetre-wave (mmWave) services.

mmWave uses high-frequency signals to transmit data at high speeds – Telstra, for one, recently trumpeted its mmWave speed record of 4.2Gbps before Samsung more than doubled it – but its signals only propagate across short distances.

This makes it ideal for high-speed, low-latency applications like self-driving cars and private 5G networks spanning company offices or industrial sites – which is why Telstra has already been testing and refining the technology for years.

Later in 2021, a separate auction will sell off rights to low-band 5G spectrum – operating in the repurposed 850/900MHz band – that will enable slower but longer-range services, helping evolving next-generation networks to extend their coverage over much broader areas with range more comparable to 3G and 4G services.

Both of the new frequency bands will complement the existing 3.6GHz ‘mid-band’ range where Telstra, Optus and Vodafone are frantically working to expand coverage and roll out services to customers, including home fixed-wireless services that compete with conventional national broadband network (NBN) services.

The dual auctions will make 2021 “the year of 5G”, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said in announcing the policy move, which will pave the way for the type of ultra high-speed applications that have generated unprecedented hype from industry and analysts.

“We are making the low, mid and high bands available so that the telcos can provide better, faster and stronger 5G in Australia,” Fletcher said, flagging the importance of such services in applications like smart farming, robotics, telemedicine and automated vehicles.

“The sooner 5G is deployed, the sooner Australia can access these benefits.”

Matching the world’s accelerating pace

Despite some looming incompatibility issues – Apple’s new iPhone 12, for example, can’t use the higher speeds in Australia even though it works fine over the current 3.6GHz mid-band services – the potential explosion in 5G applications has been flagged as a key economic driver, with Fletcher saying that 5G services would produce up to $2,000 per capita GDP after the first decade of the rollout.

These sorts of mooted benefits are accelerating the pace and magnitude of government investment in 5G around world, with US President-Elect Biden already positioning a $US300 billion R&D investment fund in which 5G will join artificial intelligence, electric vehicle technology, and lightweight materials as key pillars of an innovation renaissance in that country.

This mirrors the long-running 5G splurge by the Chinese government, which has positioned 5G as a key investment priority within its Made In China 2025 strategy.

“Declines in federal R&D spending have contributed to a hollowing out of the American middle class,” Biden’s policy positioning statement notes, noting that public federal R&D support is a third of what it was in 1964 and warning that “the fight for our future requires us to return to that winning commitment from our past”.

With innovation already flagged as a key element of the intellectual resurgence of Biden’s America – and a core tenet of the country’s emerging war of wits with global rival China – Australia has company in deciding to promote 5G as a government priority.

Industry figures have already floated the possibility of direct government financial intervention to help hasten the rollout of 5G services, particularly in areas that may not be commercially viable on their own.

Yet other countries have moved much faster to enable next-generation applications – the United States, for example, completed its third mmWave spectrum auction in March this year while UK regulator Ofcom recently announced plans for a January 2021 auction.

With 5G rapidly emerging as a key engine of national growth, Australia has already lost first-mover advantage – and, despite its reported speed advantage, the relative acceleration of other countries’ 5G efforts has already seen Australia falling behind.

An August 2018 report, prepared for Australian regular ACMA, noted that many countries were already pushing towards 5G-enabling auctions before or during this year.

Research firm OMDIA placed Australia 13th in the world for its 5G efforts in March, but while this climbed to 12th in June, it had returned to 13th place in the recent September ranking.

Ongoing geographical and structural issues in Australia would continue to complicate its efforts to expand 5G at a similar pace, OMDIA principal analyst Stephen Myers said in noting that “delivering that kind of service on a wide scale, particularly in outer suburban, regional and rural areas is going to be extremely challenging given the cost of deployment of 5G at scale in those areas.”