Wireless data throughput is expected to increase nearly fivefold over the next four years, a surge driven by overall demand for data and enabled by new chipset technology and increased spectrum allocation.
Traditionally wired internet service providers like Comcast and Charter are investing in mobile connectivity, alongside incumbent mobile network operators. Meanwhile, mobile network operators are amortizing their spectrum investments to compete in the fixed broadband market wirelessly.
A quiet but critical race to deploy wireless networks throughout the country is well underway.
For cities and towns, this rapid growth can represent both a blessing and a curse
More demand for fixed and mobile wireless services means more infrastructure in the form of radios close to end users with annual small cell deployments in cities expected to grow at a roughly 25% compound annual rate through 2026.
Uncoordinated growth can cause headaches and have lasting local and national implications for digital equity, urban landscapes and economic growth.
At the same time, cities that harness the wireless revolution can propel themselves into the future.
Wireless broadband can complement fiber technology, which can drive down consumer costs and help close the digital divide.
And 5G mobile connectivity itself is quickly becoming a necessity. Communities without 5G will be cut off from coming technologies that can save lives and spur economic growth, including autonomous vehicles to serve transit deserts, drone-based maintenance of essential infrastructure and distributed renewable energy.
The deployment of 5G must be carefully managed
Not all 5G build-outs are created equal.
If providers build discrete, separate networks, cities can become overwhelmed by permitting requests to mount radios on light poles and street infrastructure.
If three different companies latch their technology onto the same telephone pole, city infrastructure will end up cluttered, and city residents will be understandably frustrated.
These promising technologies might roll out slowly as city departments work through 5G deployment permitting backlogs.
Worse still, service providers might end up building only in the wealthiest areas—where they can most easily recover their investment. Thus, communities and even whole towns at the margins may be left out.
Policymakers have an opportunity to leverage their infrastructure and ensure that networks are built to be compatible with their goals. State and local officials can use their clout to deliver real and lasting value to as many residents as possible.
Seek out neutral hosts through public-private partnerships
Cities should prioritize competitive processes to select an open access neutral host infrastructure provider that can work with multiple carriers to co-locate on shared infrastructure.
A neutral host can marshal private investment to accelerate network builds and organize the service providers on behalf of the city — all while keeping the process competitive.
This type of public-private partnership has a multiplier effect: Private capital can be united with any public broadband funding and directed toward municipal priorities.
In this model, cities also retain control. Leaders can promote equitable build-outs, ensure that neutral hosts commit to aesthetically consistent and minimally invasive infrastructure, and even earn back a portion of the rent that neutral hosts charge from service providers.
At Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, where I work, we believe that the best type of neutral host for a city is one that allows multiple operators to share more than just the passive pole infrastructure, and by doing so reduce the visual clutter of the deployment.
For this reason SIP established its innovation platform CoFi and acquired Dense Air Networks, which uses software-defined networking techniques to share radios among multiple MNO tenants, significantly reducing their rental costs and allowing MNOs to deliver quality service economically in areas that would otherwise be underserved.
Coordinate fiber and wireless builds to put federal funding to highest and best use
Cities can now access unprecedented federal funding to fast-track connectivity.
In the recent infrastructure bill, the federal government allocated $65 billion for broadband expansion, in addition to the $10 billion made available through the American Rescue Plan.
These are huge sums, and as with all government funding, they can be used wisely or poorly.
Much of this funding will go toward building fiber and, if done correctly, cities and their private fiber partners can leverage these dollars to ensure that fiber network plans anticipate and enable wireless footprints as well.
Close consultation with wireless neutral hosts, MNOs, and ISPs can help cities get the most bang for their federal buck.
Cities can also avoid the faulty ideas of the past, such as one-time public WiFi builds. These have largely become cost centers, and they rarely deliver quality connections or cover a meaningful geographic footprint.
Cities can instead allocate funding toward financially sustainable projects, which align incentives and help build networks that can last beyond the limits of federal funding.
The 5G rollout offers an opportunity for cities to correct past mistakes — and bring millions of people online and into the digital economy.
With innovation in public-private partnership models and technology, cities can, and should, harness the secular growth in wireless broadband to their advantage.
Noah Tulsky is a Partner at Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), where he focuses on SIP’s CoFi platform, which works to advance shared broadband solutions, and 5G strategy. SIP owns, operates, and invests in innovative technology to transform infrastructure systems, advancing scalable solutions to society’s biggest challenges. Previously, Noah worked at Goldman Sachs, where he invested across the power & energy, transportation, and telecommunications & data sectors on behalf of the firm’s infrastructure funds. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
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