Washington politics has been stuck in a cul-de-sac of debates over health care, immigration and taxes for years. Meanwhile the tools and networks that power our economy and connect our lives are changing rapidly and politicians are oblivious. The next generation of wireless networks – 5G – is rapidly coming into focus, and Americans need to pay attention to take advantage.

Every new generation of wireless communications has been marked by faster speeds. Next-generation 5G networks, however, will have to do much more, much faster and with better quality. Think of it as a three dimensional expansion rather than just two. Network operators must make this transition in order to power the billions of devices in the Internet of Things (IoT).

Most people have never hear of ONAP, but the Open Network Automation Platform is an important part of the answer.

The nonprofit Linux Foundation, advancing professional open source management, is now managing ONAP, a flexible and powerful open source software defined network. Working with wireless network operators, Linux has set up the platform to bring us fully into the 5G, connected world. Many of the world’s largest wireless network operators, from Asia, Europe, and North America, have joined already. By late June, the effort already encompassed 43% of global wireless subscribers, and companies representing another 29% are expected to join by year’s end.

It’s disruptive, and it’s powerful – the vision is nothing less than for ONAP to become the largest shared technology in the world. As with other open source efforts, individual network operators are empowered to contribute to the platform. If the Linux Foundation agrees with the change, it becomes part of the system. This governance structure makes ONAP faster and more economical for everyone to use and helps the software respond quickly to changes in demand – far faster than equipment, which can no longer keep up with demand.

What does all this mean for 5G, for the future of networks and for the rest of us?

According to Ericcson’s 2017 Mobility Report, global monthly data traffic per smartphone was 2.1GB in 2016 – this will rise to 12GB by 2022. Consumer spending for smart products and services was $76 billion in 2016. This will rise to an estimated $158 billion by 2022, according to Strategy Analytics. According to Smart America, cities around the world are expected to invest an estimated $41 trillion in “smart” infrastructure – energy, utilities, transportation, and public safety, among others. As 5G is deployed, we will see this type of investment accelerate – and ONAP will only spur that investment. Those are jobs and opportunities for entrepreneurs if Americans are ready with the skills.

Possibly the most important aspect of 5G will be the ever-wider deployment of IoT smart devices. According to research and advisory firm Gartner, the Internet of Things is expected to rise from only 8.4 billion connected devices in 2017 to over 20 billion by 2020. The IoT will be able to take advantage of 5G’s faster speeds and lower latency to attach more small devices to the network. It will also be more efficient through network slicing to conserve resources so that devices that do not need constant communication with the network (think of utility meters, for instance) can be connected efficiently. The products connected to this network will work faster and provide better services.

Connected cars will soon contribute to this evolution of technology and networks. Two years ago, automotive company Delphi conducted the first coast-to-coast drive of an autonomous car. Already nearly 12.5 million cars were made in 2016 with some form of connection technology; Gartner forecasts that this is estimated to rise to over 60 million by 2020.

Self-driving cars are like little data centers, each consuming up to five terabytes of data per hour, with possibly a dozen cameras and six radar/lidar systems. Normally all of that processing power had to happen in the vehicle. There might be a more efficient way. What if much of that data can be offloaded to the network, so that cars can be lighter and not have to carry so much equipment for connectivity?

That kind of innovative thinking will become increasingly common as 5G becomes more widely deployed.

The shift to open source and IoT-driven 5G will also require other types of changes, too. For instance, regulation will have to be modernized to reflect the placement and approval of next-generation wireless equipment. Yesterday’s rules and approval process for the local deployment of large cell towers may be inadequate and inappropriate for building out newer ‘pizza-box’ sized, small cell technology cell sites.

Over the next 10 years, 5G technology powered by ONAP will offer new services and applications in our daily lives that are even more spectacular. All of this change creates opportunities and new challenges for consumers and entrepreneurs but political attention is absent. When was the last time cable news went wall-to-wall with ideas like these? The world is moving fast. Washington needs to catch up.

Originally published at Huffington Post