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11 cities prepare for 5G wireless pilot

In a Verizon project spanning major cities across the nation, new connectivity is fueling smart city efforts and unleashing fresh mindsets among public-sector technology leaders.

Jason Shueh
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Jason Shueh Tech Editor

Jason Shueh is a tech editor at StateScoop with a specialty for civic tech and smart city news. His articles and writing have covered numerous subj...

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In a grab at the future of wireless, 11 cities are looking to benefit from a Verizon Wireless pilot program that deploys the company's first 5G network. 

The telecom's move has prompted CIOs to forecast greater momentum for smart city technologies, economic development and connectivity for low income residents. Verizon publicized its decision to deploy the network on Feb. 22 with launch plans set for the first half of the year. In comparison to Verizon's 4G LTE, the new network's speeds are expected to be exponentially faster, jumping from peak downloads speeds of 50 megabits per second to up to 10 gigabits. That top speed would represent about 10 times what services like Google Fiber offer.

The rollout will come to Seattle; Atlanta; Denver; Dallas; Houston; Miami; Washington D.C.; Sacramento, California; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Bernardsville, New Jersey; and Brockton, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Rhode Island continues its own pursuit of the next-generation of wireless technology.

Seattle Chief Information Officer Michael Mattmiller said that while 5G networks are still in their early stages, Verizon and competitors like AT&T are likely laying the foundation for a new world in smart city solutions. With such bandwidth, these sensors will theoretically be able to transfer vastly greater amounts of sensor data at higher frequencies, essentially paving the way for smart city tools that display high-definition pictures of how a city is operating.

For instance, Seattle has sensors that detect ground temperature, monitor traffic and parking, measure the structural integrity of dams and track other key pieces of infrastructure. This data, Mattmiller said, could be increased to offer groundbreaking insights.

"If we think about the types of real-time information we could get to better manage the city and how this is enabled by low-latency, high-bandwidth technologies like 5G, it could potentially unlock more efficient operations," Mattmiller said. "When bandwidth is not an issue, it's interesting to think how this might change what can be achieved."

Civic benefits

Yet, venturing beyond innovative advancements, Mattmiller called out the potential impact 5G might have on common civic issues like attracting business growth, generating living wage jobs and improving digital access for low-income earners. As a home for tech startups and tech giants like Amazon, the city reports that 75 percent of its population growth in the last five years has been due to new jobs created by its tech sector. In light of this, Mattmiller said if Seattle can grant early access to high bandwidth technologies this enhances the city's appeal for innovative tech companies producing next generation products.

"We think those technologies are going to provide tremendous value to our community. And certainly for mobile applications," Mattmiller said.

Expressing similar optimism, in a blog post Sacramento CIO Maria MacGunigal said that with faster speeds basic internet access could be more affordable considering the expenses of traditional fiber and home internet installations.

"This pilot program is one of the first practical implementations of 5G in the nation," MacGunigal said. "It is this type of innovation that will enable residents to experience gigabit speeds that were previously only available via costly fiber."

Additionally, since studies have shown many low-income residents are dependent on mobile devices for internet access, high-speed networks may alleviate some accessibility issues by empowering mobile devices with a broader reach to services that require high speeds — online learning videos to enhance career skills, for example.

Yet the positives come with potential downsides as well. Mattmiller said there is a disruptive factor at play, with respect to regulation. With companies like Verizon and AT&T offering greater bandwidth in the form of internet, telephone and television connectivity, it presents challenges to a city's authority to intervene for its residents in case of disputes, and it cuts into tax revenues generated from traditional cable providers. Mattmiller said that for Comcast and CenturyLink, Seattle's local cable providers, the city has a right to collect small tax revenues that go to digital equity initiatives, can mandate that networks serve a percentage of low-income neighborhoods, and when complaints arise, fight for consumers in their behalf.

"We don't have that authority when television starts becoming an over-the-top service, through the types of operations of Verizon and AT&T ... If people are cord-cutting and switching these new television services as part of the 5G revolution, we are going to lose our funding to provide those types of public benefits," Mattmiller said.

For now, Mattmiller said Seattle is putting its trust in 5G companies to acknowledge the disruption and contribute to the neighborhoods and resident they serve.

"We are hoping that the wireless carriers recognize what the values of our communities are as they pursue their build and work with nonprofits, municipalities, and others to make sure that the service helps to close the digital divide instead of further it,” he said.

A national trend

Beyond Verizon's 11 city partnership, early adopter CIOs at the state and city level, including New York City and Chicago, reported to StateScoop they are investigating 5G technology. Rhode Island announced an economic development initiative in November with an eye on becoming a national leader for the wireless technology. 

After issuing an RFI to gather ideas, and then extending the application period until Feb. 13, Rhode Island received responses from 11 large vendors, industry associations, and municipal technology companies, including Verizon Wireless.

Octavia Abell, director of strategy at the Rhode Island Office of Innovation said the responses lay a "great foundation" as the state builds a comprehensive plan around 5G. The next steps, she said, will include roundtable discussions, tentatively scheduled for early April, that include talks around "opportunity areas," policy, and potential regulatory issues.

Abell noted that a central theme of the proposed deployments was an emphasis around "centralizing information and permitting functions" that would be critical to maximize speed and minimize costs of deployment. Consistency across the regulatory environment will also be key, she said.

Rhode Island has not yet formally committed to a 5G procurement.

"Generally, we're really excited about using the RFI process and I think it sparks a stakeholder conversation about how we can help create a really strong climate for the development of these next-gen networks and looking to opportunities including 5g but also potentially outside of that scope as well," Abell said.

Colin Wood contributed to this story.

-In this Story-

States, Rhode Island, State & Local News, Careers & Elected Officials, Chief Information Officer (CIO), Procurement, Smart Cities, Tech News, Broadband/Connectivity, 5G, Digital Services, IT Infrastructure, Mobility, Apps, Verizon

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