WASHINGTON — Federal regulators on Thursday opened the door to the next generation of wireless services, making the U.S. the first nation to allocate a wide swath of airwaves to deliver super-fast 5G access.

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously to authorize mobile use in high-frequency spectrum that had only limited uses until recent technological advances.

The agency also laid the groundwork to auction a large amount of that spectrum to wireless companies while allowing more open or shared uses of the rest – all with flexible rules in hopes of duplicating the regulatory environment that helped fuel innovation in the existing fourth-generation networks.

“By not getting involved in the technologies that will use the spectrum we’re turning loose the incredible innovators of this country. … And with our oversight to protect competition we insure that the forces that drive that innovation and improved consumer service are alive and well,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

“This is a big day for our nation,” he said.

The fifth generation of mobile service since the first bulky cellular phones were introduced in the early 1980s promises to deliver data at least 10 times faster than today’s 4G networks.

Experts said 5G is the key to expanded wireless uses, such as autonomous vehicles, Internet-connected appliances, virtual reality and yet-to-be-imagined applications. The technology also is seen as crucial to extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas that are expensive to serve with cable or fiber.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said “there is seemingly no limit on how what we refer to as 5G could impact our everyday existence.”