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The fate of the Open Internet Order, also known as net neutrality, consumes much of the technology policy oxygen in Washington, DC. But the future of wireless broadband is surprisingly also contingent on seemingly mundane policy reforms now being debated in state legislatures across the country. States that act are likely to be first in the race to deploy 5G wireless networks and will thus reap the social and economic benefits.
The early leaders are Arizona, Colorado, and Indiana, which have already enacted laws to streamline the deployment of the new networks. But why would states have any role at all? Let’s take a step back.
5G will be even more important for the economy than the first four generations of mobile communications. It will not only deliver more data to our smartphones and more broadband to our homes, but it will also serve a wide array of new applications in a variety of industries. It will be the connectivity platform for autonomous vehicles, manufacturing, logistics, advanced distribution, healthcare, retail, energy, public safety, smart infrastructure, and the boundless Internet of Things.
To serve all these new applications and connected devices, however, this network will have to be more ubiquitous than ever. Today’s US mobile ecosystem is served by some 320,000 cell sites, such as towers and rooftop antennas. 5G will be based on less imposing but far more numerous “small cells.”These will be placed on buildings, lampposts, and utility poles, multiplying today’s number of cell sites several-fold. Today’s existing cell towers and tomorrow’s small cells will work in concert to provide broad coverage and super-fast throughput to watches, cars, drones, packages, TVs, machinery, sensors, cameras, and just about any object you can imagine.
pictured: a new small cell in Zionsville, Indiana.
Deploying hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of new small cells won’t be easy. It will take a couple hundred billion dollars over many years to find sites, attach the cells to poles, and connect them with fiber optic lines that link to each other and lead back to the core of the internet.
In addition to the technical complexity and huge financial outlays, another challenge to deploying this vast infrastructure is navigating the local permitting process. This is where the state reforms come in. Getting a single permit from a city, town, or county to erect a new cell tower can often be time consuming and expensive. Obstacles including application fees, pole attachment fees, and the time spent waiting on approvals mean that obtaining such permits, one at a time, to deploy dozens or thousands of new small cells would be prohibitive.
This spring, Arizona, Colorado, and Indiana limited the bureaucratic complexity and cost of deploying small cells. Some localities, for example, had been demanding $4,000 per year for each small cell! The new laws in these states cap fees (at, say, $50-$100), ensure access to public rights of way, and generally smooth the way for reasonable deployment. Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and Virginia have also taken steps to encourage 5G build-outs.
States that want more wireless capacity and coverage may want to follow suit.This post was originally published on TechPolicyDaily.
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