Early 5G demos and launch commitments may be flashy, but they ignore a critical reality: regulation will play a much more critical role in the success of future 5G networks and services.

In explaining how they built out the Mobile World Congress Americas conference agenda, the GSMA touched on six key themes: consumer Internet of Things (IoT), content and media, policy, industrial IoT, networks, and sustainable development.

To be fair, policy could be linked to any of the other topics.

So why call it out separately?

Because policy (AKA regulation) is critically important as an input into the success or failure of technologies and businesses driving the mobile ecosystem forward.

Regulation, after all, has the power to help new technologies thrive or kill them before they even get off the ground.

Against this backdrop, you’d expect regulation to be an integral part of the discussion around 5G.

So far however, it hasn’t been. Efforts around standardising and proving out 5G technologies have drowned out almost any other news.

It’s a dangerous dynamic. For various reasons, regulation will determine how easy is is to launch commercial 5G services and networks.

Siting

By all accounts, 5G networks will require many more cellular base stations than today’s networks?

In part, this is a function of dedicating more base station capacity to each user.  In part, it’s because low-latency services (think real time services like artificial reality and virtual reality) require that base stations are closer to users.

In part, it’s because high-frequency 5G radio signals can’t travel very far.  But it regulation makes it difficult to costly to install these sites, the promise of 5G won’t be achieved.

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Spectrum

Spectrum is the lifeblood of any wireless service. 5G is no different.  5G success, then, will depend on regulators working to make new spectrum resources available to would-be 5G service providers.

Just as important, harmonised spectrum allocations across countries will ensure the scale economies needed to keep 5G costs in check.  Already we’re beginning to see what happens without coordination.

Many countries are looking at spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band for 5G.

At the same time, in the US, there is momentum growing to use the band for LTE…splitting the market’s focus and negatively impacting scale efficiencies.

Compliance

While the higher speeds and network capacity of 5G may be a boon to consumer applications like immersive video, highly-touted 5G use cases like ultra-reliable low latency communications and massive IoT connectivity are all about supporting vertical market applications – digital industries.

The good news and the bad

In general, however, industries only invest in new technologies for three basic reasons: to save money, to make money, or to comply with regulatory demands.

Where regulations can be made to align with the competencies of 5G, then, the potential to support the success of 5G deployments and use is clear.

Ultimately, this is both a good news and bad news story.

The bad news is that a lack of global coordination on the regulatory front could well hold back the scale of 5G.

Without globally harmonised spectrum or generally accepted practices around siting, for example, scale will suffer.

And since most countries (and regulators) have their own agendas driven by their own priorities, it’s not reasonable to expect global coordination.

And the good news?

The good news is that regulators who are progressive or make moves to support 5G rollouts could put their countries at a competitive advantage.