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5G Can Enable Smart Cities — If Policymakers Allow It

As cities work to install connected devices and sensors throughout their communities, 5G wireless infrastructure will be essential to making it all go. What may stand in the way is government itself.

Many cities are striving to become “smart” — communities at the forefront of using data, sensors and connected devices to improve government services and residents’ quality of life through analytics and automation. Smart cities promise to deliver notable advances, such as less roadway congestion from smart traffic signals, more effective health and safety inspections with predictive analytics, and more transparency with real-time dashboards showing citizens when to expect the next snowplow or garbage truck to come through their neighborhood. 

But for most cities, especially those in the U.S., becoming a fully functioning smart city is a dream still only on the horizon. While many have launched important smart city initiatives, these tend to be one-off projects instead of fully integrated smart city efforts that modernize city governments from top to bottom. Yet comprehensive smart city efforts are necessary to fully extract the value that data analytics can deliver to government.

One step cities can take to come closer to realizing their vision of becoming a smart city is accelerating the deployment of 5G wireless networks. 5G, which offers faster connections, more reliability and greater capacity at lower costs, will enable cities to better connect their infrastructure, devices and people. Moreover, compared to the current 4G standard, 5G offers the capacity to enable additional smart city capabilities, and it will be a prerequisite to enable various high-bandwidth and low-latency smart city applications. For example, 5G will support the wide-scale deployment of connected vehicles communicating with traffic signals to reduce traffic as well as the deployment of large numbers of sensors to measure in real time the safety of infrastructure such as water pipes, highways and buildings. 

For cities to reach this potential sooner rather than later, however, they will need to accelerate the deployment and adoption of 5G. One way is for cities to streamline their permitting processes. 5G uses small cells that can transmit data faster but not as far as the towers of past wireless networks. As a result, the number of small cell installations needed to fully implement 5G is expected to be 10 to 100 times the number of existing cell towers. This means that delays, inefficiencies and high costs in the permitting process take a heavy toll on 5G deployment.

While the Federal Communications Commission generally requires cities to approve or deny 5G installations in 60 or 90 days depending on the type of application, cities can make themselves more attractive to firms installing 5G by setting shorter timelines. For example, Austin, Texas, has self-imposed a 40-day limit to approve or deny applications after a slow application review process led to the city falling behind its peers.

Cities should also minimize the red tape associated with 5G installation. For example, cities can establish a single point of contact to work with wireless carriers to address any concerns about the aesthetics of the shoebox-sized radio equipment and antennas used in 5G networks. Cities can also expedite the buildout of 5G wireless infrastructure by adopting “dig once” policies for laying fiber conduit when building roadways and “climb once” policies for adding wireless equipment to city buildings, utilities or light poles.

Cities should also adopt cost-based pricing policies for fees they impose on carriers. Some cities, such as San Jose, Calif., have looked at 5G as a cash cow to line city coffers, hoping to charge carriers extremely high permit fees. While cities like San Jose might be able to get away with this given that they are a relatively densely populated, high-income community, many cities will not be able to do this without putting themselves closer to the back of the line for carrier build-out investments.

Finally, cities should avoid the fearmongering that tends to follow the deployment of any new wireless tech. For example, cities in Marin County, Calif., have passed ordinances to slow the expansion of 5G over unsubstantiated health concerns. The Mill Valley City Council passed an ordinance in September to prohibit the installation of 5G in residential neighborhoods over fears that the electromagnetic fields created by 5G antennas could cause cancer. Such claims are unwarranted, but these types of policies can sharply curtail 5G smart city applications.

5G alone will not spur the creation of smart cities, but it does expand the opportunities for cities to use data, sensors and other smart devices to improve operations. To spearhead smart city adoption, city leaders should take steps to create an environment that is conducive to rapid deployment and adoption of 5G.  

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.