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MADISON — To the casual user, the evolution of wireless technology has been a steady progression of higher speeds that have enabled people to move from email and texting on clunky mobile phones to video streaming and fast internet searches in about three decades.

From the first-generation, or 1G, analog networks of the 1980s through the digital 2G, 3G, 4G and LTE systems of today, the growth in speed and capacity has brought a more connected world while opening the door to technologies that are transforming the economy, improving health care, making cities “smarter” and more.

And yet, it’s only the opening act.

Tom Still

Still

The next iteration in wireless technology is 5G, which is engineered to geometrically increase the speed, reach and responsiveness of wireless networks.

While the march from 1G through LTE (short for “Long-Term Evolution”” technologies was nothing short of impressive, 5G will achieve speeds three times today’s standards across larger coverage areas while transmitting much more data.

An international race is on to roll out 5G networks and Wisconsin is finally at the starting line.

Legislation that would make it easier to build 5G networks and the associated “small-cell” transmitters necessary for such systems to work has passed the Wisconsin Legislature by wide, bipartisan margins and will soon reach Gov. Tony Evers.

If he signs the bill into law, Wisconsin will join all neighboring states in removing potential regulatory barriers to the technology.

With 5G, technologies such as augmented reality, autonomous and connected vehicles and connected sensors will become more widely available.

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It could also provide the extra bandwidth needed to advance the “Internet of Things,” a network that links not just phones and computers but also robots, cars and all manner of sensor-equipped consumer products and infrastructure.

The advent of 5G will speed a new era of “smart cities” in which energy grids, traffic signals and emergency services are linked for efficiency.

It will also revolutionize health care, starting with dramatically improved remote monitoring for patients. Providers will get the data they need in real time and use it to provide the right care.

Cybersecurity and the overall stability of the electric grid may also be improved; entertainment and retail will also see big changes.

The investment required will be enormous, however, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent worldwide during the coming decades to upgrade hardware, networks and mobile phones.

It’s a race with international implications, as well, with China investing in adding small-cell networks at a breakneck pace and Russia ordering the launch of 5G networks earlier this year.

The international competition explains some of the stated health reasons for opposing 5G, which have been repeatedly reported on RT America, a Russian news network that has been identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as a principal meddler in the 2016 presidential election.

Reports on RT America have claimed high-frequency 5G signals will cause brain cancer, infertility and more – all without mainstream scientific support. Scientists say the opposite is true: The higher the radio frequency, the less it penetrates human skin and exposes internal organs. Without a strong ability to deploy its own 5G networks, some observers say, Russia may be seeding the clouds of doubt in the United States to slow the rollout here.

The pace at which 5G is adopted in the United States depends on factors such as how fast money can be invested, how industries such as manufacturing view its benefits, and how quickly small-cell towers can be blended into urban landscapes and other existing towers adapted. It won’t be overnight.

However, it only makes sense for Wisconsin to join other Midwest states and prepare now for the next big thing in wireless communications.

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Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.

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