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Sacramento, Calif., Will Be First of 11 Cities Nationwide to Test 5G Wireless Connectivity

Sacramento’s active efforts to streamline installation of 5G networks was likely part of the reason Verizon choose the city for its pilot.

In April 2017, Verizon will roll out super-fast wireless Internet in the form of 5G pre-commercial services to 11 U.S. cities, and when it does, Sacramento will be the first and only California city on its list.

Sacramento is not the state’s most prominent city. Sure, it has nearly half a million residents and a relatively solid growth rate, and it’s also home to the state capital and an NBA franchise, but it's nowhere near as glitzy as Los Angeles or as tech-laden as San Francisco. How, then, did it land a coveted position as a test market alongside Seattle, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.? 

Sacramento officials say they simply did a good job cleaning up and getting ready.

In fact, Sacramento had early conversations about preparing for 5G about a year and a half ago, said Maria MacGunigal, Sacramento’s chief information officer and IT director. Traditionally, infrastructure for wireless networks has involved gigantic towers. But 5G uses small cell networks, made up of collections of units no larger than a breadbox, which communicate over smaller geographic areas before then having data backhauled over fiber. 

What Sacramento did to prepare was twofold: It worked toward equitable distribution and a reduction in digital blight, and it kept city-owned infrastructure clean and clear, so a company like Verizon could easily install equipment in many strategic places that have access to power. Sacramento also established standards, lease agreements and other bureaucratic procedures to enable fast and easy deployment of this tech.

“It’s a new and emerging technology, everything is changing so fast. It’s kind of like the wild West, no standard has been landed upon. All the various providers are trying things to see what works,” MacGunigal said. “What we’ve been saying is, in order to manage this process in a reasonable way, we’re going to have to set standards so we don’t end up with a bunch of ugly clutter in the right of way.” 

For the most part, the units will attach to existing poles, many of which are the poles used by SMUD, a not-for-profit utility provider in Sacramento. 

MacGunigal said Sacramento’s active efforts to streamline installation of 5G networks was likely part of the reason Verizon choose the city. She said of all the cities in which Verizon is testing the program, Sacramento’s program will go live first. 

Verizon, however, is not the only provider in the country currently testing 5G wireless tech. In February 2017, AT&T predicted that 5G is still a year away from being fully available on the market, floating New Orleans as a potential test city for its service. Sacramento also isn’t alone in its preparation efforts for 5G. In November 2016, South Bend, Ind., and the University of Notre Dame, which is located in that city, planned to seek federal grant money in order to become a 5G test site. 

Seattle also released an RFI in January seeking private-sector ideas for providing Internet access to 100 percent of its residents, and in discussing that, Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller suggested that 5G tech could be used to accomplish that goal.

MacGunigal said Sacramento was interested in the technology as both a way to possibly offer faster access to citizens, as well as a means of attracting innovators and entrepreneurs to the city. 

“Once the basic framework and infrastructure is in place for these networks to exist, I think we will see significant reduction in the cost of data and access to the Internet and pipelines," she said. "With that, we’ll see more and more people having connectivity."

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.