Removing Regulatory Obstacles to 5G Deployment

The coming transition to fifth-generation (5G) wireless will bring mobile data speeds up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G technology, but only if network operators can deploy the significantly higher number of wireless communication facilities required for 5G service without stumbling through a thicket of state and local siting regulations.

The nation stands on the cusp of a massive mobile internet revolution. Far from hyperbole, the coming transition to fifth-generation (5G) wireless will bring mobile data speeds up to 100 times faster than today’s 4G technology.

The speeds that 5G will deliver to wireless are today available only over fiber-optic lines. Once the nation becomes accustomed to 5G as an everyday service, we will think of today’s 4G wireless speeds much as we do the dial-up internet experience of two decades ago.

5G is also the technology that will power the Internet of Things, and its advent carries broad economic benefits. According to the consulting firm Accenture, the transition to 5G will mean 3 million new jobs, $275 billion in new investment, and a $500 billion boost to the gross domestic product.

New Technology, New Infrastructure

Consistent with wireless technology evolution over the last 20 years, 5G will offer broadband wireless service that is cheaper, faster, and more ubiquitous than any we have previously known.

Equipment needed for this next generation of high-speed wireless broadband service, however, will be deployed differently. 5G will rely on a multiplicity of small-cell antennas, spaced closer to each other and closer to the internet user, unlike the large cell towers of earlier generations. Small-cell antennas, as the name indicates, are quite little and can be situated inconspicuously on a wide variety of existing structures. With rare exceptions, new towers would not be necessary to accommodate them; however, there will be a need to attach them to street poles, typically owned by local governments or utility companies.

Old rules about placement and regulatory approval of today’s cell towers are unnecessary and would hinder the nation’s 5G future. Efforts to apply legacy rules to the multiplicity of small cell antennas required to power 5G will significantly delay deployment and could threaten the ability for next-generation technology to serve many American communities.

New Infrastructure, Old Regulations

While 5G service will be delivered to the internet user in a wireless transmission from small cell sites, those sites must be connected to the central network through fiber-optic lines. As previously mentioned, network operators will need to place those lines on utility poles and in public spaces to benefit consumers; rules that facilitate those placements will be critical to 5G deployment.

Some states have streamlined their procedures to help accelerate deployment. These states have lessened or removed a thicket of regulations that are holdovers of an earlier era, including a hodgepodge of rules that can vary widely from locality to locality within a state.

Some argue that localities should be permitted to extract high rates for access to facilities such as street poles. However well-intentioned, those arguments ignore the reality that 5G will simply require a far larger number of cell placements than the older technologies, with each placement being less conspicuous and occupying less space than earlier generations of wireless equipment.

The Deployment Imperative

5G is faster. 5G is better. It will enable low-income residents to have an affordable, ultra-high-speed broadband connection as capable as the wired fiber-optic connections we know today. But it will only come if the 5G small cells and connections to the central network can be placed affordably on street poles and in other public spaces.

If this sounds familiar, it should. We’ve seen the challenges before in the difficulties some cable and fiber companies have had in getting access approvals from local governments. But 5G should be approached very differently, and in light of the broad public value it offers, have an easier solution.

With all the benefits of fast broadband for individuals and businesses—and with the new equipment being far smaller than a new cell tower—states that understand the need for a uniform process are poised to benefit from quicker deployment of 5G. Rather than promoting government control, states and localities should ask themselves whether they want to stand in the way of progress and fall behind neighboring jurisdictions—who are, after all, their competitors for economic and business development.

5G wireless is indeed revolutionary. States and local governments would be well advised to use the advent of this technology as a turning point in the regulatory framework for wireless equipment placement. This is the best way to realize the broad benefits of America’s wireless future for everyone.

Originally published at Bloomberg BNA