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How Should Governments Plan for the Latest Network Tech?

Yesterday, tech company leaders and a chief innovation officer from a local area discussed how the usage of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 tech should be based on both organizational needs and citizen viewpoints.

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While 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have a lot of potential, it’s important to select the right kind of communication network based on your needs, experts said during a virtual panel hosted by Cisco yesterday. 

This principle was addressed at the start of the event when David Graham, chief innovation officer of Carlsbad, Calif., said that too often cities adopt the latest technological solutions while treating communications as an “afterthought.” This mistake creates a “Frankenstein” situation where parts may not be integrated well, leading to inefficiencies and security flaws. 

Acting on this line of thought, Carlsbad partnered with Cisco for a reliable and secure core network. Because the municipality became proactive about this issue of proper infrastructure, Carlsbad didn’t miss any city council meetings after the pandemic hit. Graham also said the solution made economic sense comparing the $4.5 million core network to as much as $15 million for a city-built option. 

“Our hybrid option took advantage of existing fiber from a third-party that the city had access to. 91 percent of the network was already in the ground. The $4.5 million is both equipment and … [i]nstalling the remaining 9 percent of the network.” Graham wrote in the Q&A box of the virtual meeting. 

Graham also wrote that some city buildings only had download speeds of 10 Mbps before the network was built. With the new network, all locations will benefit from a speed of 10 Gbps. 

Mo Katibeh, chief product and platform officer for AT&T Business, said the elephant in the room boils down to a question: Will 5G replace Wi-Fi? According to Katibeh, this question overlooks that different use cases favor Wi-Fi over 5G and vice versa. 

For smaller locations, such as restaurants, Wi-Fi costs less and is more than enough technologically, as it can support 1,000 connections at the same time. But larger and more complex structures, like hospitals and Air Force bases, should consider investing in 5G, as it can connect “up to a million things per square kilometer,” Katibeh said. 

Katibeh elaborated on what 5G can enable for a hospital: smart shelving, which can track medicines that are placed onto and removed from shelves; virtual training for nurses and doctors; and even novel ways of addressing pain management through virtual reality. 

“Instead of using opioids, I can create an experience where someone is taking a walk in an English garden,” Katibeh said. 

Katibeh added that AT&T connected more devices in 2020 than in any other year. He found that “literally every industry” was looking into Internet of Things technology in order to improve outcomes. 

John Chapman, chief technology officer for broadband technologies at Cisco, said his company and others are ultimately in the business of connecting everyone together and will use anything at their disposal to achieve this goal.

“If it’s a carrier pigeon we need, we’ll wire up that carrier pigeon,” Chapman remarked. 

Graham provided a word of caution about the practice of rapidly rolling out new technology. He referenced research that suggests that more than 60 percent of people around the world believe technology is moving too quickly for governments to handle. Because of this increasing distrust, civic engagement must be a high priority, as the input of citizens can serve as “guideposts.” 

“We need to be inviting the public to co-create the solutions with us,” Graham said. 

The panel discussion didn’t address the criticisms that have been aimed at 5G and Wi-Fi. In an interview with Government Technology last year, Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, pointed out that 5G won’t help with the broadband affordability issue if people have to purchase more expensive devices to access 5G.

“I do think it’s going to worsen the digital divide,” Siefer said. “5G is yet another divide, and it adds to existing problems.”

Meanwhile, utility and public safety organizations have decried the FCC’s decision to open up the 6 Gigahertz spectrum band for unlicensed Wi-Fi 6, arguing that interference within that band could compromise critical communications. 

“We’re creating this new risk that didn’t exist before, and that only exists because of this decision,” Rob Thormeyer, a spokesperson for Utilities Technology Council, told Government Technology in October. “We believe that there are other spectrum bands that the FCC could have targeted for Wi-Fi use.”


Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.