5G: Coming to a Community Near You (With the Right Policy in Place)

All Americans, no matter where they live or what income they make, must have access to fast broadband.

A future where telemedicine, self-driving cars and virtual reality are the norms of the day means that we have to deploy broadband from sea to shining sea. This is not just a talking point; it has to be a mantra. Broadband is at the heart of 21st-century life, and it will be the underpinning of our economy.

Last year, I served as a representative to the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, including serving as vice chair of a working group focused on removing state and local regulatory barriers to broadband deployment. We identified a number of barriers, including unexplained delays in approvals, excessive fees and more onerous conditions for telecommunications providers than for other users of municipal rights of way.

Some of these barriers exist because not every municipality has the resources or expertise to address an application for broadband deployment quickly. Others occur because municipalities fail to see broadband’s full potential for their cities, or deployment is caught up in state or local politics.

As challenging as these barriers to deployment have been in the past, the need to deploy the next generation of high-speed mobile broadband service (5G) around the country is nothing less than urgent.

The benefits of 5G are immense: speeds up to 100 times faster with quick operations that will permit new innovations in virtual reality, connected cars and connected homes. From an economic perspective, 5G means up to 3 million new jobs and a $500 billion increase in GDP over the next seven years.

Unfortunately, too many municipalities still have the wrong policies in place, by accident or design, including actual prohibitions on deployment, high fees unrelated to costs and long processes to award permits. Each of these conditions makes it more difficult to deploy broadband.

If network operators find it difficult to deploy in one place, the reality is that they will deploy in more welcoming jurisdictions first. Left unchecked, this leads to a nation where some communities have faster speeds and better coverage, while other communities are left behind. This is an unacceptable result that is patently unfair to the people who live in the areas with slower service.

The good news is that, if we get the policy right, questions about siting of facilities to support 5G should become much easier and quicker to resolve. Instead of the large and sometimes unwieldy cell towers of the past, 5G will rely on “small-cell” technology that is just that – small, in some cases the size of a pizza box.

Small cells would push the network physically closer to the user of a smartphone or the “driver” of a connected car. Hundreds of thousands of these small cells will dot the country, connecting cars and people and powering the Internet of Things. The average home had over 14 connected devices in 2016, and this number will jump significantly over the next few years as 5G becomes a reality. Each of these devices will transmit huge amounts of data, which will become even more dense with 5G’s faster speeds and greater connectivity.

BDAC developed a model code with policies that will assist in the rapid deployment of broadband to communities. It will help municipalities prepare themselves for the broadband future. State and local officials should recognize the benefit of broadband deployment for the economic and social benefits they bring to our society as a whole.

Now, following on this work, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has announced that the FCC will conduct a proceeding to speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the country. It reflects how 5G is different by changing the rules that applied to large deployments so that the small cells that make up 5G no longer qualify as major federal undertakings. This has the potential to reduce costs of small-cell deployments by up to 80 percent, as well as reduce the time for deployment.

It does not make sense to apply rules meant for larger cell towers to structures that can attach to existing structures and are orders of magnitude smaller. Every dollar that is not spent on regulatory costs is a dollar that can go toward broadband deployment.

Steps like a model code and — thanks to Carr’s hard work — this new proceeding at the FCC can have a big impact. Providers and local governments need to work together in a cooperative fashion, because making broadband faster and ubiquitous is a win-win for everyone.


Kim Keenan is co-chairwoman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.

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