ASD Emerging Technologies Fellow Lindsay Gorman, Harvard’s Hugo Yen, and Virginia Tech’s David Simpson provide a brief overview of 5G technology and related policy considerations for Harvard Belfer Center’s Technology Factsheet Series. 


5G refers to fifth-generation cellular network technology, and includes both the mobile broadband infrastructure as well as 5G devices that rely on the network. Compared to 4G (fourth-generation cellular network technology), 5G offers not only faster network speeds but also many new functions such as increased machine-to-machine communications and low-latency data transfer.1 Through these upgraded capabilities, 5G will enhance and enable technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). Use cases for 5G include autonomous vehicles, smart cities and smart grid automation, industrial IoT, remote surgery robots, public video surveillance, and immersive media.2 The first 5G networks in the US and world were launched in mid-2019, though current 5G networks are early versions with limited capabilities. 5G network standards are projected to be completed by the early 2020s, while technical features will continue to be developed throughout the decade.

The introduction and integration of 5G poses opportunities and risks, both of which are important to consider from a public sector and private sector standpoint. The promise of 5G’s faster connectivity and scaled data processing capacity is counterbalanced by foreseeable risks around national security and safety, individual privacy, and a lack of inclusive accessibility.

Regulation of 5G in the United States exists primarily at the federal level, focusing on supply chain integrity, infrastructure development, spectrum allocation, and network deployment. At an international level, 5G is mostly regulated through technical standards set by global industry groups through standards organizations, such as the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and the United Nation’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU).3 5G is expected to be a core component of digital infrastructure in the 2020s and 2030s, demonstrating an importance for U.S. policymakers to continue to engage in the public purpose considerations associated with the technology and examine pathways for effective governance and regulation.

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  1. “3GPP Release 15 Overview,” n.d.
  2. “The Top 5G Use Cases,” November 17, 2017.
  3. “5G Standards: What You Need to Know,” October 30, 2017.