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5G Wireless: Capabilities and Challenges for an Evolving Network

GAO-21-26SP Published: Nov 24, 2020. Publicly Released: Nov 24, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Fifth-generation (5G) wireless promises not just to increase speeds but to enable new applications like automated cars and smart factories.

We reviewed U.S. 5G development. It's still early, with efforts focusing on increasing speed and connecting more devices. Technologies that enable 5G's full potential are expected within the next decade.

We also highlight key challenges to 5G and present policy options to address them. For example, 5G is expected to greatly increase data transmission, which would require more radio frequency spectrum—a scarce resource. To help, policymakers could promote research into more efficient use of radio spectrum.

Forecast of total worldwide mobile data usage

Graph showing historical data uploaded and downloaded from fiscal years 2011 to 2019 as well as forecasted data from 2020 to 2025.

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What GAO Found

Fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks promise to provide significantly greater speeds and higher capacity to accommodate more devices. In addition, 5G networks are expected to be more flexible, reliable, and secure than existing cellular networks. The figure compares 4G and 5G performance goals along three of several performance measures.

Note: Megabits per second (Mbps) is a measure of the rate at which data is transmitted, milliseconds (ms) is a measure of time equal to one thousandth of a second, and square kilometer (km²) is a measure of area.

As with previous generations of mobile wireless technology, the full performance of 5G will be achieved gradually as networks evolve over the next decade. Deployment of 5G network technologies in the U.S. began in late 2018, and these initial 5G networks focus on enhancing mobile broadband. These deployments are dependent on the existing 4G core network and, in many areas, produced only modest performance improvements. To reach the full potential of 5G, new technologies will need to be developed. International bodies that have been involved in defining 5G network specifications will need to develop additional 5G specifications and companies will need to develop, test, and deploy these technologies. GAO identified the following challenges that can hinder the performance or usage of 5G technologies in the U.S.

GAO developed six policy options in response to these challenges, including the status quo. They are presented with associated opportunities and considerations in the following table. The policy options are directed toward the challenges detailed in this report: spectrum sharing, cybersecurity, privacy, and concern over possible health effects of 5G technology.

Policy options to address challenges to the performance or usage of U.S. 5G wireless networks

Policy Option Opportunities Considerations

Spectrum-sharing technologies (report p. 47)

Policymakers could support research and development of spectrum sharing technologies.

  • Could allow for more efficient use of the limited spectrum available for 5G and future generations of wireless networks.
  • It may be possible to leverage existing 5G testbeds for testing the spectrum sharing technologies developed through applied research.
  • Research and development is costly, must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Identifying a funding source, setting up the funding mechanism, or determining which existing funding streams to reallocate will require detailed analysis.

Coordinated cybersecurity monitoring (report p. 48)

Policymakers could support nationwide, coordinated cybersecurity monitoring of 5G networks.

  • A coordinated monitoring program would help ensure the entire wireless ecosystem stays knowledgeable about evolving threats, in close to real time; identify cybersecurity risks; and allow stakeholders to act rapidly in response to emerging threats or actual network attacks.
  • Carriers may not be comfortable reporting incidents or vulnerabilities, and determinations would need to be made about what information is disclosed and how the information will be used and reported.

Cybersecurity requirements (report p. 49)

Policymakers could adopt cybersecurity requirements for 5G networks.

  • Taking these steps could produce a more secure network. Without a baseline set of security requirements the implementation of network security practices is likely to be piecemeal and inconsistent.
  • Using existing protocols or best practices may decrease the time and cost of developing and implementing requirements.
  • Adopting network security requirements would be challenging, in part because defining and implementing the requirements would have to be done on an application-specific basis rather than as a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Designing a system to certify network components would be costly and would require a centralized entity, be it industry-led or government-led.

Privacy practices (report p. 50)

Policymakers could adopt uniform practices for 5G user data.

  • Development and adoption of uniform privacy practices would benefit from existing privacy practices that have been implemented by states, other countries, or that have been developed by federal agencies or other organizations.
  • Privacy practices come with costs, and policymakers would need to balance the need for privacy with the direct and indirect costs of implementing privacy requirements. Imposing requirements can be burdensome, especially for smaller entities.

High-band research (report p. 51)

Policymakers could promote R&D for high-band technology.

  • Could result in improved statistical modeling of antenna characteristics and more accurately representing propagation characteristics.
  • Could result in improved understanding of any possible health effects from long-term radio frequency exposure to high-band emissions.
  • Research and development is costly and must be coordinated and administered, and its potential benefits are uncertain. Policymakers will need to identify a funding source or determine which existing funding streams to reallocate.
Status quo (report p. 52)
  • Some challenges described in this report may be addressed through current efforts.
  • Some challenges described in this report may remain unresolved, be exacerbated, or take longer to resolve than with intervention.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO was asked to assess the technologies associated with 5G and their implications. This report discusses (1) how the performance goals and expected uses are to be realized in U.S. 5G wireless networks, (2) the challenges that could affect the performance or usage of 5G wireless networks in the U.S., and (3) policy options to address these challenges.

To address these objectives, GAO interviewed government officials, industry representatives, and researchers about the performance and usage of 5G wireless networks. This included officials from seven federal agencies; the four largest U.S. wireless carriers; an industry trade organization; two standards bodies; two policy organizations; nine other companies; four university research programs; the World Health Organization; the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements; and the chairman of the Defense Science Board's 5G task force. GAO reviewed technical studies, industry white papers, and policy papers identified through a literature review. GAO discussed the challenges to the performance or usage of 5G in the U.S. during its interviews and convened a one-and-a-half day meeting of 17 experts from academia, industry, and consumer groups with assistance from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

GAO received technical comments on a draft of this report from six federal agencies and nine participants at its expert meeting, which it incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Hai Tran at (202) 512-6888, or Vijay A. D’Souza at (202) 512-6240,

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