Austin’s 5G Preparations Lag Behind Other Texas, U.S. Cities

The city has approved permit applications for 97 5G connection devices from carriers to be installed throughout the city, according to officials. The number is roughly two and a half times what it was in October, but is still far lower than other major cities.

by Sebastian Herrera, Austin American-Statesman / April 29, 2019

(TNS) –– Devices enabled for 5G technology are beginning to appear throughout global markets, prompting telecommunication companies in the United States to prepare connection networks in major metro areas. In Austin, which is usually ahead of the technology curve, the prep work continues to lag behind that of other cities.

While city officials in the past six months have made progress in adapting Austin for the next generation of wireless technology, Austin still lags behind Dallas, Houston and other metros in gearing up for the service.

A slow-moving permit approval process in Austin for 5G connection devices has for some time put the area behind the curve for a technology expected to not only power the next wave of smartphones but also other devices of the future. The difference now is that 5G is no longer a concept, but a product being implemented.

"We are working to reach more locations, but (Austin's) cooperation and timely approval of permits plays a major part in the breadth and scope of our 5G deployment," Adrianna Bernal, assistant vice president of external affairs at Dallas-based telecommunications giant AT&T, told the American-Statesman in an email. "Obtaining all permits required in Austin can take up to 5 months while in Dallas they are turned around in 45 days."

Austin has approved permit applications for 97 5G connection devices from carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint to be installed throughout the city, according to Rondella Hawkins, director at the city's office of telecommunications and regulatory affairs. The number is roughly two and a half times what it was in October but still far lower than other major cities.

AT&T says 900 permits have been approved in Dallas, 1,500 in Houston and 375 in San Antonio. More connection devices on city streets means a greater capacity to provide widespread 5G service, carriers say. In cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis, Verizon says it's officially started a 5G mobile network.

The connection devices, known as small cell networks, are responsible for powering the ultra-fast speeds 5G is promised to offer. While current 4G and LTE wireless communication mainly operate through large cell towers, experts say numerous small cell devices have to exist throughout cities in order for faster speeds to exist. The 5G service is expected to be standard in new smartphones and become an important tool for internet-connected devices and evolving technology necessary for self-driving cars and other industries.

Carriers continue to characterize a bureaucratic small cell permit approval process in Austin, with companies describing a stricter process here on matters such as how companies can run fiber cables around water and electricity lines, as well as where they can install the devices.

But city officials say that a greater number of application approvals doesn't necessarily mean one city has a leg up on the other. Austin is making sure it implements the right 5G framework without taking on unneeded costs or unnecessary connection devices, said John Guinan, who in February became the city's first permanent project manager for small cell devices.

Austin officials have established better communication with carriers during the past six months, Guinan said. As a result, the rate of approval for small cell applications has increased by about 20 percentage points to roughly 50 percent, according to the city.

"Austin and the carriers are taking the time to have a substantive dialogue and find solutions that work for all the parties," Guinan said. "All of those dialogues to date have had an element of give and take."

In the race for 5G, AT&T is competing not only with Verizon, T-Mobile and other American brands, but international companies also hungry to control the billion-dollar market. Samsung, Huawei and other cell phone makers are releasing the first generation of 5G-enabled phones this year.

Carriers said they will continue to submit permit applications in Austin. AT&T, for example, said it expects to file 120 applications here this year. At the moment, the most AT&T has been able to provide in Austin is 5G connection to some businesses and consumers who use a specific mobile hot spot device.

Hawkins, Austin's telecommunications director, said as the city receives additional small cell applications from carriers, it will work toward faster 5G implementation.

Austin will not be left out of the movement, Hawkins said.

"We've invested a lot of time and resources," she said. "We've demonstrated we are committed."

©2019 Austin American-Statesman, Texas Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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