5G wireless, fact and fiction

New wireless technologies, including 5G, are poised to expand the reach and robustness of mobile connectivity and boost broadband choices for tens of millions of consumers across the country. We’ve been talking about the potential of 5G the last few years, and now we are starting to see the reality. In a number of cities, thousands of small cells are going up on lampposts, utility poles, and building tops. I’ve discussed our own progress here in Indiana.

The project will take many years, but it’s happening. And the Federal Communications Commission just gave this massive infrastructure effort a lift by streamlining the rules for deploying these small cells. Because of the number of small cells to be deployed – many hundreds of thousands across the country – it would be counterproductive to treat each one of them as a new large structure, such as a building or hundred-foot cell tower. The new rules thus encourage fast deployment by smoothing the permitting process and making sure cities and states don’t charge excessive fees. The point is faster deployment of powerful new wireless networks, which will not only supercharge your smartphone but also provide a competitive alternative to traditional wired broadband.

Given this background, I found last week’s editorial by the mayor of San Jose, California, quite odd. Writing in the New York Times, Mayor Sam Liccardo argued that the new FCC rules to encourage faster deployment are an industry effort to “usurp control over these coveted public assets and utilize publicly owned streetlight poles for their own profit, not the public benefit.”

But the new streamlining rules do no such thing. Public rights of way will still be public. Cities and states will still have the same access as private firms, just as they had before. And who will benefit by the private investment of some $275 billion dollars in new wireless networks? That’s right – the public.

If cities and states wish to erect new Wi-Fi networks, as Mayor Liccardo did in San Jose, they can still do so.

I think the real complaint from some mayors is that the new FCC rules will limit their ability to extort wildly excessive fees and other payments from firms who want to bring these new wireless technologies to consumers. Too often, cities are blocking access to these rights of way, unless firms pay up. These government games are the very obstacles to deployment that the FCC rule is meant to fix.

Fewer obstacles, faster deployment. And accelerated deployment of the new 5G networks will mean broader coverage, faster speeds, and more broadband competition, which, crucially, will put downward pressure on connectivity prices, boosting broadband availability and affordability.

Mayor Liccardo emphasizes the challenges of low-income neighborhoods. But there are much better ways to help targeted communities than by trying to micromanage – and thus delay – network deployment. One better way, for example, might be to issue broadband vouchers or to encourage local non-profits to help pay for access.

This isn’t an either-or problem. Cities still maintain access to public rights of way. But one thing’s for sure. Private firms will be the primary builders of next generation networks. Overwhelmingly so. And faster deployment of wireless networks is good for the public.

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