My family and I recently visited relatives in Florida, traversing 1,000 miles down I-95 to the Sunshine State. It’s generally an easy drive. This time, however, holiday traffic congestion, accidents, and construction forced significant detours onto state roads around the numerous holdups. Of course, our smartphones — with their useful navigation tools — proved indispensable in getting us safely to our destination.
Our navigational prowess was made possible by omnipresent, 150-foot cell towers dotting the rural landscape. There are more than 150,000 cell towers in America alone. But they didn’t get there magically. Each one of those cell towers represents a ton of work. Local zoning regulations, rights-of-way agreements, FCC and FAA rules, environmental concerns, and negotiations with public and private land owners, among others, make erecting cell towers a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive process.
But that work must go on. We love our data-hungry smartphones. In the U.S., mobile data traffic continues to grow at an amazing compound annual growth rate of 34 percent, projected to reach an estimated 5.6 exabytes per month in 2021 from 1.3 exabytes per month in 2016. Yes, more spectrum to carry that data must be freed up by federal authorities, which is a perennial undertaking. But an unrecognized story here is the infrastructure, like cell sites. That process has to be freed up, too.
We’re on the cusp of the next evolution of wireless technology — 5G. These services will come online within the next couple of years, delivering data at speeds of one gigabit per second and beyond, representing a 100-times increase over today’s LTE experience. 5G mobility will “talk” with the Internet of Things, like our fridges or healthcare devices; meet us on the street as we move place to place through such technology as autonomous cars; and help us communicate with others via faster, richer, and jitter-free services, such as high-definition video calling.
5G can’t happen, however, until the infrastructure to support it is put in place. That architecture is different than your average cell tower, though. Because the signal characteristics of 5G mean they cannot travel as far as present technology, “small cells” about the size of pizza boxes are necessary to bring 5G closer to users. Instead of being miles away on towers, small cells will be placed on light and utility poles or other “street furniture” in cities and locales. And there will be lots of them, too. Industry puts that number conservatively at 800,000 nationwide.
Small cells are a fundamental building block of 5G. Unfortunately, the old system of erecting cell sites stands in the way. Extortion comes to mind. For example, after two years of negotiation with wireless carriers, one California city recently set its small cell siting fees at up to $2,500 per site, far in excess of any associated costs. This cannot scale nationally. The process desperately needs reform.
As one leading wireless carrier noted:
“The longstanding approach to siting was designed to address the very different concerns of very large ‘macro’ towers, and applying those time-consuming and expensive processes to hundreds or thousands of backpack-sized small cells distributed through a city just won’t work. …[It] takes too long, costs too much, and gives outsized leverage to the localities that control the rights-of-way and have gatekeeping control to much of the infrastructure. The existing process impedes the rollout of services that customers want.”
The FCC is working to reform that system. Others in Congress and the states, too, are moving to make wireless infrastructure siting more streamlined. Still, much work remains to bring about a reasonable and comprehensive nationwide siting regime.
Like the mobile technology before it, 5G will make our lives better. State and local officials would do well to navigate around their own holdups to deliver that promise to their constituents.
Mike Wendy is president of Media Freedom, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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