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‘Smart cities’ could be next big wireless upgrade – if cities would cooperate

By   /   January 26, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Smartphones. Smart TVs. Smart watches. And, if the next wave of technological innovation is to be believed, smart cities.

That is the premise behind the next wave of wireless deployment. The new technology — “small cells” — would supplement and supplant the giant cell towers that the current network is mostly carried on. But outdated regulatory regimes are hindering deployment and, according to the wireless industry, inhibiting jobs and economic opportunities in cities ripe for infrastructure development.

Courtesy of Flickr user Sam Churchill

SMARTER CELLS: Small cells, like the one pictured on the existing utility pole above, could replace multi-story towers in our wireless future.

Small cells promise more than just increased wireless reliability on every street corner. Industry advocates say that integration with city services could lead to everything from improved power efficiency to more responsive emergency services to better smart-car performance.

Which is not to understate the potential economic opportunities. Some of the major telecommunications companies are itching to invest in smart cells. According to a report from Accenture done in conjunction with wireless association CTIA, even smaller cities could benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars of investment when buildout becomes possible.

“Communities of all sizes are likely to see jobs created,” the report says. “Telecom operators are expected to invest approximately $275 billion in infrastructure, which could create up to 3 million jobs and boost GDP by $500 billion.”

Streamlining the process

But in most jurisdictions, regulators require the same permitting process for the new small cells as they once required for multi-story cell towers. This is untenable in an environment where there would be dozens, if not hundreds, more small cells than large towers.

Regulators aren’t equipped to handle the approval process for that kind of volume of infrastructure, and the amount of time involved — approval for a large tower can take up to 24 months to approve, and waiting that long for each individual small cell would make buildout near-impossible.

“There’s two main hurdles in the way of smart cities,” Tom Struble, Policy Counsel at technology policy think tank TechFreedom, tells Watchdog.org. “The first is backhaul infrastructure. Each small cell needs a wire running to it that can provide backhaul to the greater internet.” This is why streamlining the permitting process is so important: with many more access points, there needs to be more infrastructure.

“The other big hurdle is spectrum,” Struble says. “Along the coasts and in major urban centers, there’s a spectrum shortage.” Freeing up more spectrum, as the Federal Communications Commission has slowly been doing, would allow small cells to communicate with each other and with consumers with less infrastructure.

Accenture and CTIA recommend reforms that could be undertaken by regulators that would open their markets to small cell deployment: streamlined permitting, a better right-of-way application process, and updated fee structures that reflect the differences between small cells and traditional towers.

Cities acting smartly

Community-level reform is also needed if small cell-powered smart cities are to become a reality. Unfortunately, in some of the cities where companies have tried to clear the regulatory hurdles, little progress has been made.

Chicago, for example, has been a focus for small cell deployment by many of the major wireless operators. But many of its utility poles have been given a “historic” designation, which means that planning and deployment is even more complicated than in other cities.

To facilitate deployment, local policymakers could follow some of the recommendations given by Accenture and CTIA that would boost the estimated $275 billion in infrastructure investment that wireless companies are prepared to make if some of the regulatory hurdles can be cleared.

Will Rinehart, technology director at the American Action Forum, told Watchdog.org that the smart city development promises are all reasonable. “A lot of that investment is going to go to infrastructure development,” Rinehart said. $275 billion over a 10-year period? That’s feasible. How much is going to go to smart cities? That really depends on how cities themselves develop these projects.”

State and local policymakers may get a boost from incoming Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, who has praised the rollout of smart cells and pointed to ways that states and municipalities can facilitate deployment.

“Deploying more infrastructure is important because we’re on the leading edge of a data tsunami … [but] regulations can make it tough to deploy infrastructure,” Pai said in a 2014 speech. He pointed to a Georgia law that mandated statewide streamlined processes for infrastructure deployment and upgrades that other states and municipalities could follow. “The BILD Act is expected to expand mobile broadband in the Peach State by setting predictable timetables and eliminating costly delays in the siting of wireless facilities. These are great models for other legislatures to follow – and I hope they do.”

“There’s only a handful of tech-forward cities that have already taken steps to ease deployment,” Struble says. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

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Kevin Glass is Director of Policy and Outreach at the Franklin Center. He has covered politics and policy in Washington, D.C. for eight years. A graduate of Colgate University, Kevin has served as Assistant Managing Editor at the Washington Examiner and Managing Editor at Townhall. He has been published by National Review, The American Spectator, and The Atlantic, among others. He lives in Washington, D.C.