Why Cities Should Jump at the Chance to Add Cell Towers to Streetlights

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | In a contributed piece, the authors suggest compromises and efficiencies to ensure cities do not get left behind in the 5G revolution.

This is the first in two contributed articles on broadband access and local government’s role in building better connectivity for its citizens. Read the second one here.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. —  Numerous state lawmakers are filing bills to encourage or even compel large cities to incorporate cell towers into existing municipal infrastructures. Not everyone is sold on the proposition.

Wireless carriers want to install miniature cell towers on utility poles and streetlights to keep up with fifth-generation—commonly known as 5G—cell phone technology. Carriers plan to install more than 250,000 small cell sites across the U.S. in the next few years, but they require broad access to public property in order to proceed. Legislators have introduced wireless siting bills in 25 states so far this year, with hopes to begin work on installations in 2018.

In Illinois, for instance, legislation intended to streamline this process has enjoyed a cold reception. The Small Cell Wireless Bill passed the Illinois House and Senate during the 2017 veto session, though State Senate President John Cullerton decided to hold the legislation after public outcry from area communities. Policymakers said they hoped to negotiate with local officials who have called on Gov. Bruce Rauner to veto the bill.

Meanwhile, both sides of this ongoing debate have been clashing in California Gov. Jerry Brown late last year vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for telecommunications companies to install the small transmitters on public property. Brown argued the permitting process for new technology must be weighed against the right of local governments to manage public property under their jurisdiction.

Skeptics claim these small cell sites will be more of an eyesore than an asset, but city dwellers should welcome this beneficial blend of private tech and public property.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

Opponents argue that this integration of street furniture and tech will harm community aesthetics and historical preservation. Local and state representatives who oppose the legislation, however, will cause self-inflicted wounds to the long-term prosperity of their communities.

By attaching small cell antennas to streetlights and other street furniture, carriers will be able to use 5G technology to deliver wireless data much more effectively. Wireless customers in affected areas will enjoy improved coverage, fewer dropped calls, and faster download speeds.

5G technology saw an informal test in Minneapolis during Super Bowl LII, after Verizon crews installed 250 of the small cell sites throughout downtown Minneapolis to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of out-of-town visitors for the big game. The stadium itself was blanketed in wireless signals, with antennas hidden in everything from handrails to small boxes scattered among the stadium's seats.

As 5G technology gains traction, wireless carriers hope to eventually supplant cable as the primary provider of home internet service. Speeds on 5G networks are better than traditional cable internet, and the wireless service can compete with high-end fiber networks. Homes within reach of these small cell sites would no longer require wired connections, but the infrastructure for this sort of network does not exist in many communities. As a solution, carriers want to pepper small cell antennas on existing street furniture.

Critics contend the wireless industry's initiative will roll back public efforts to expand broadband access to underserved and rural areas. In truth, the push to install cell antennas on public furniture would actually support these efforts by forcing cable providers to bolster their infrastructure and reduce their rates in order to remain competitive.

According to Deloitte, the U.S. must spend more than $100 billion over the next five to seven years to support fiber infrastructure demands. Wireless providers can ease this burden by densifying their networks, increasing consumer access along the way. Carriers would partner with municipalities to design, permit, and construct saturated wireless networks, benefitting all parties involved.

Residents want improved connectivity, but they fear unsightly additions to city structures. To mitigate this aesthetic issue, cities should require companies to shroud antennas and install non-transmitting equipment below ground.

In exchange, cities should agree to give wireless carriers and cable companies a free market in which to solve the digital divide. To build seamless networks, wireless companies will need to serve all high-density areas — including impoverished districts. By simplifying the installation and permitting processes, cities will be able to facilitate better services for their citizens with minimal effort.

Leaping from Legislation to Implementation

Before this technology can change things for the better, local leaders must modify municipal policies and procedures. Steep lease rates for cell towers on private property inflate the operating expenses of wireless carriers. Low-cost access to public street furniture would remedy this issue, reducing operating expenses for carriers and freeing up capital for infrastructure improvements and denser networks.

Many municipalities lack defined fee structures and approval processes for the corporate use of public property. By creating straightforward licensing procedures, cities can help carriers plan ahead for new networks. Public works departments should interfere as little as possible, only stopping proposals that overstep the common sense of aesthetics and function. If cities keep rates fair and permitting reasonable, carriers can pass their savings on to customers.

Communities that oppose the installation of 5G technology on their assets risk falling behind other municipalities that cooperate with carriers. Technology-fueled startups and participants in the gig economy prefer areas with better technology. If one city is saturated with high-speed wireless service while another avoids upgrades, startups are more likely to flock to the city with the better technological offering.

Fast internet service is the lifeblood of the global economy. In nations with fewer regulations on wireless infrastructure, carriers provide denser networks with better service at lower costs. Without reliable, affordable access to these advanced systems, American communities will trail behind their global counterparts.

To remain globally competitive, government officials must work with the wireless industry to rethink commercial access to public assets. By cooperating with carriers on permitting and reasonable use rates, municipalities can create room for compromise on the shrouding and location of new equipment. Opening city hall for business will create new economic opportunities for wireless generations to come.

ALSO on Route Fifty:

Michael Gleason, an entrepreneur and technology expert, and Kevin Muldoon, an attorney and city councilman, are on the leadership team of InMyArea.com, a technology company based in Newport Beach, California.

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