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Will 5G allow cities to kill broadband monopolies?

Commentary: Boston’s chief information officer is hopeful that an incoming generation of wireless technology will upset the industry and bring new connectivity to urban areas.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge
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Jascha Franklin-Hodge CIO, City of Boston
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Earlier this year, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam made a surprising statement. Speaking at an investor conference, he said, “We could be a significant player for delivering broadband and video … outside the Washington to Boston corridor.”

Cities have long struggled with ISP monopolies, so it’s a big deal — and a very welcome development — when a major telecom talks about competing in new territory.

According the the Federal Communications Commission, only 22 percent of Americans have more than one option for fast broadband. This comes with a host of problems for consumers.

We are forced to do business with companies that regularly find themselves at the bottom of surveys of customer satisfaction. We pay more for internet than people in other developed countries, putting broadband out of reach for many low-income Americans. And in an era of “hands-off” FCC regulation, integrated telecom/media conglomerates like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T will be tempted to use their dominant ISP market positions to ward off competitive content from the likes of Netflix and Amazon through zero-rating, paid prioritization, and other schemes that undermine the principle of net neutrality.

What has made McAdam willing to go where telecoms have refused to go for decades? 5G wireless technology. Specifically, “fixed broadband” delivered to your home or business over the air, rather than through a fiber or copper cable.

The era of broadband monopolies may finally come to an end. But it will take a combination of new technology and smart local policy to make it happen.

No-dig broadband

When it matures, the next generation of wireless technologies could unlock access to huge amounts of untapped high-frequency spectrum and allow for gigabit speeds without wires. Though it’s hard to disentangle the marketing hype from the science, a combination of new frequencies, new transmission standards, and advanced antenna design offer the promise of fast, low-latency, high-density wireless connections that rival those provided by traditional fiber optic or cable technologies.

Verizon’s long-term bet is that they can save much of the cost of digging up streets and stringing cables to homes by using a wireless connection from one of their base stations to an antenna permanently affixed to your house. McAdam is so bullish about this, he’s telling investors that Verizon will compete with cable companies and other telecoms even in places where Verizon lacks the home field advantage of being the incumbent telephone company.

If this comes to pass, it will be great news for cities and consumers. If the economics work for Verizon, then other providers will surely follow suit. A decade from now, cities could find themselves with a robustly competitive marketplace for home and business broadband, where companies are forced to distinguish themselves on quality, price, customer service, and other consumer benefits that monopolies tend to dispense with.

Protections for consumer privacy and net neutrality are currently under assault at the FCC.  While not a substitute for smart regulation, a more competitive market could help limit bad behavior among ISPs as consumers switch away from those that sell their browser history or drive up costs for competitive content services like Netflix.

For this future to become real, two things must happen.

First, 5G must prove itself technologically. Major telecoms and large internet companies — including Google, Facebook, and Apple — are running field trials and investing heavily, and small upstarts like Phazr and Starry are getting into the space. While most are tight-lipped about their progress, the scale of the investment suggests they are optimistic. We should know more in the next few years as test results are published and more formal technology standards are established.

Second, cities and providers must figure out how to support the unique infrastructure that 5G will require.

Where cities fit in

Operating primarily in high-frequency spectrum, 5G will need short distance, line-of-sight (or near-line-of-sight) links between base stations and the customer’s building. Whereas a large 4G cell antenna can cover several square miles, 5G will likely need many more small base stations that each serve just a few blocks. The best real estate for these base stations are vertical structures with good sightlines to potential customers, like street lights, traffic signals, and utility poles.

The assets that will make 5G work are often publicly-owned or located in the public right-of-way. City government will need to develop policies that make this public infrastructure available to wireless companies, while balancing important public policy goals.

Some key considerations for cities:

  • Process: To make 5G economically viable, cities will need base station review and approval processes that are efficient, predictable, and fair. A well-designed process can protect the public interest without subjecting installations to uncertain timelines and excessive negotiation at each individual location.
  • Design: To be accepted by residents, ubiquitous wireless infrastructure must blend in, and not undermine accessibility, safety, or historic preservation. With our grounded local knowledge, city government can help providers develop designs that blend into the urban fabric and win the acceptance of residents.
  • Competition: Policies that promote a level playing field, and which prevent squatting, exclusive access, and land grabs can ensure that 5G is a competitive market, not just a new monopoly.
  • Compensation: While competition is a public good, cities should not give away valuable public assets to private for-profit companies. Companies should provide cities fair market compensation through some combination of payment, in-kind services, and direct community support.

There is a movement afoot at the FCC and many state capitals to strip cities of their powers to regulate wireless infrastructure in the public right-of-way. Providers argue that cities and towns  are too slow and too change-resistant to be trusted to support 5G. But to bypass local government would be a mistake. Residents will surely revolt if companies, unchecked by thoughtful rules, begin taking over public streets with unsightly wireless equipment. City government, working with companies, can create process, standards, and policies that address local concerns and meet the needs of providers.

It’s tough to plan for future technology, but cities don’t have to wait for 5G to get started. Today, wireless carriers are rapidly densifying their urban networks by deploying small cells. These low-power base stations use the same infrastructure that will likely support 5G in the future. By putting in place smart policies for small cells today, cities can lay the groundwork for a future of competitive 5G service, and improve the quality of 4G service today. Boston’s small cell program now has six licensed companies with hundreds of small cell locations, and we’ve put in place policies that set the stage for tomorrow’s technology.

For years, cities have been caught between the pain of monopoly providers and the challenging economics of building a municipal broadband utility. Communities without competition have been left waiting for Google Fiber or another deep-pocketed white knight to ride into town to offer a choice. Thanks to evolving wireless technology, the era of competitive broadband may soon be upon us. But to get there, we’ll need a lot of smart engineers and city governments willing to sit down at the table and hammer out the right set of policies and agreements to make widespread deployment possible.

-In this Story-

States, Massachusetts, State & Local News, Tech News, Broadband/Connectivity, 5G, monopolies, Boston, wireless, small cell, Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Verizon

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