As communities across the United States wait to learn how high-speed mobile networks will figure in a long-promised infrastructure plan, some cities are already attracting private investment in next-generation 5G networks. They are doing so by finding new ways to collaborate with network and equipment providers, creating a set of “best practices” that other local governments can follow.
The new networks will be critical for handling the sevenfold increase that Cisco projects for mobile Internet traffic as well as the billions of new connected devices attached to the Internet of Things and connected local infrastructure, or what is known as “smart cities.”
A major stumbling block, however, is fitting new 5G investments into local zoning, permitting and other regulations optimized for prior network architectures. 5G’s architecture is radically different from its earlier counterparts. Instead of widely spaced large cell towers, 5G relies on smaller but denser configurations of shoebox-size antennae, many of which will be attached to existing buildings, streetlights and utility poles.
Mobile industry trade group CTIA estimates about 300,000 small cells will be needed in the next three to four years to support the evolution to 5G, 10 to 100 times more antenna locations than 4G or 3G. Though densification, as the name suggests, implies more equipment, its smaller size, lower height, and ability to be attached to existing infrastructure should ease aesthetic concerns of residents. New “smart” LED lighting poles from Philips Lighting and other vendors, for example, are being designed specifically to unobtrusively house 5G equipment.
These differences mean that today’s policies regarding oversight of mobile infrastructure are often obsolete or inefficient. Using macro cell tower procedures to review permits for small cell build-outs, for example, would create massive backlogs, delay deployments, and unnecessarily tie up both public and private resources.
Forward-thinking officials at the federal, state and local levels are hurrying to update their processes, looking for new approaches that maximize community value and minimize delay. Based on what we’ve seen successful cities do, here are key recommendations for communities seeking to accelerate their transition to become a 5G smart city:
1. Preempt unnecessary intergovernmental conflict — Carriers need networks that serve large populations, often involving multiple communities. But overlapping authority and jurisdictional turf fights between different layers of government are deadly. Winning communities avoid those disputes by forming new public-private partnerships early in the game, innovating solutions that get network infrastructure installed with the least inconvenience to residents and businesses.
We see this from recent deployments of gigabit-speed wired networks. In North Carolina’s Research Triangle, for example, six cities and four leading research universities, along with local business leaders, took the initiative in 2013 to solicit proposals from private operators to build new fiber-optic networks that would power the region’s educational and applied technology industries. The Next Generation Network collaboration resulted in construction of competing gigabit Internet networks for the region, positioning it well for future wired and mobile applications.
2. Dig once, climb once and other process streamlining — New equipment to support next-generation broadband will be smaller but more voluminous. This requires local governments to be faster and more efficient in permitting and installation procedures. Fiber conduit should be laid anytime streets are being dug up for any reason; likewise, multiple requests to add equipment to city buildings, light poles and other infrastructure should be combined when possible.
Communities should give installers a single point of contact for all zoning and permitting issues and establish clear and reasonable time frames for review in overall master contracts. Fee schedules should be transparent. Paperwork for attaching small cells and other equipment inside and outside buildings should be minimized. Cities that have an 18- to 24-month time frame for reviewing large cell tower applications are unlikely to attract new deployments.
3. Partner with providers eager to test 5G infrastructure — Leading mobile providers and equipment makers eager to make the business case for massive 5G investments to investors need real-world success stories. That creates an opportunity for local officials to attract early deployments and extra attention.
In exchange for local cooperation, for example, Verizon and its equipment partners began offering free 5G trials last year to customers in 11 cities, including Ann Arbor, Mich; Sacramento and Washington. AT&T, likewise, is offering its 5G Evolution prototype in as many as 20 metro areas.
4. Target applications that can energize local economies — Smart city applications, which apply IoT technology to municipal services, can both improve the livability of a community and reduce operating costs for city infrastructure. According to an Accenture study, vehicle traffic management and electrical grid smart city applications alone could produce $160 billion in savings through reductions in energy usage, traffic congestion and fuel costs.
Video-enabled telehealth applications, likewise, can enhance quality of life for seniors while building competitive advantage for local health-care providers. And other IoT applications can improve local manufacturing, transportation, agriculture and educational institutions, depending on a community’s existing economy and priorities.
5. Establish pro-investment pricing policies — As local governments compete for early access to 5G investment dollars, setting prices for rights of way access, pole rental and other fees that encourage rather than deter private investment will determine which cities get the most benefit sooner. While local governments may be tempted to set high fees to meet short-term budget needs, doing so is counterproductive in the long term. As Accenture notes, “A city will benefit much more from the increased jobs and prosperity that 5G Smart City technology brings, than from the revenue the city generates from pole fees or permits.”
Time is of the essence for communities hoping to get ahead of the pack in the rollout of 5G networks and the new applications they make possible. While Congress and the FCC are working to provide additional broadband funding for underserved communities, federal and state regulators are also working to accelerate deployment by establishing mandatory “shot clocks” for review times, prices, and other process changes to reflect both the importance and difference of 5G deployment.
Federal and state preemption should both be a last resort. Local governments can avoid the need for either by acting now to establish policies in the best interests of their residents.
Blair Levin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. In 2009, he oversaw development of the National Broadband Plan. Larry Downes is project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy and co-author of “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014).