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Is 5G Really a Thing? A Local Government Perspective

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Patrick Mulhearn
January 23, 2020

2020 is the year of 5G: prepare for the deluge of advertisements about just how amazing your life is about to be.

But to accomplish all this amazingness, there’s a lot of work yet to be done: networks need to be built, 5G-compatible devices need to be designed and produced and regulatory policies need to be established. In a lot of ways this technological leap is ahead of the curve of our current appetites, but it’s apparent that our appetites will quickly expand to consume this new resource.

In a lot of ways 5G is a solution to a problem we don’t really have yet. 5G will give us everything we love about mobile data consumption and MORE. Downloads will be 20 times faster (you can download a movie in seventeen seconds) and latency will be reduced by a factor of 20 (improving real-time technologies like telemedicine and autonomous vehicles, or enabling countless 360 noscopes in online shooters). It’s like our internet, but better.

This work is being advanced by the private sector with the enthusiastic support of the Federal Government. This combined effort is being compared to both the Apollo Space Program and the interstate highway system. But while there’s still some uncertainty about how we’ll ultimately get there, we know for certain that our local rights-of-way are about to be festooned with a new generation of antennae.

The Technology

5G is what’s considered a, “millimeter wave technology,” basically a classification of radio frequency radiation that has very short wavelengths. 

This frequency allows for transmission of a great deal of information but for shorter distances than current 4G technologies. This means that 5G antennae need to be closer to each other than their 4G forbears, which means more antennae crowding our public infrastructure. Although these devices won’t be much more than a half-meter long, telecommunications companies want their own antenna transmitting signals to their own customers, so co-location of several antennae will be common.

The millimeter-wave also has serious limitations indoors —the signals won’t pass through walls—so interior antennae will most likely be required to access all that blazing speed.

And 5G antennae are power hogs, requiring a lot more energy than 4G.

But the kinks seem mostly to have been worked out, and 2020 is being hailed as the turning point to 5G, in spite of the fact that there isn’t really a global consensus on exactly what 5G means. This is how ahead of the curve 5G is: what we call 5G now might be inferior to the 5G we get next year, or maybe in three years we get some new derivation of 5G (5GX! 5G-Supreme! 5G-Infinity!) because the standards evolve along with technological innovations. We’re through the looking glass now and every day brings us new and fascinating developments we couldn’t have imagined even last week. But how do we regulate a technology that won’t sit still?

Moving Targets & Insatiable Appetites

 While a 5G standard is still evolving, regulatory agencies are trying to stay ahead of infrastructure deployment. Telecommunications companies know what sorts of antennae they’ll need, and how many antennae they’ll need to serve their customers; and they’ve made sure that the Federal Government is aware of their needs. The FCC recently released new rules that prioritize the sorts of infrastructure that 5G deployments will require: mostly so-called small-cell antennae, everywhere.

The rush to expand telecommunications capabilities is an attempt to satisfy our data consumption habits. As people rely more and more upon their devices to do everything from taking pictures to playing video games, as opposed to making phone calls, telecommunications companies have determined that they need bigger tubes to continue feeding our insatiable appetite for data. While none of us really need to download the latest Avengers movie in 17 seconds, once that threshold is crossed, we’ll howl the next time we have to wait 90 seconds to see Thanos snap his fingers

But ultimately this means more telecommunications projects needing local approval, and the FCC rules are designed to make sure that no city council can stand in the way of inevitability. From a central-planning perspective this is necessary—desirable even—because we can’t have a crazy-quilt of disparate local interests complicating national infrastructure plans. But for local governments, this represents an erosion of one of the last vestiges of local control: the right-of-way.

Policymakers have reacted in various ways, with local officials decrying the loss of local control and members of Congress trying to undo the FCC rule. But since the inevitable is already upon us, local governments should begin asserting themselves in within the narrow parameters established by the FCC rulemaking.

Joint Venture Silicon Valley recently released Bridging the Gap: Wireless Telecommunications Handbook, which provides some suggestions for local officials on regulating 5G. The scope of local authority has been curtailed, but Federal Regulators have determined that the overarching goal of a nationwide 5G network supersedes local concerns. The best locals can do is learn the rules of this new game and enjoy their 17-second downloads.

Author: Patrick Mulhearn, MPA, is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors. He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and local governance. He may be reached at [email protected].

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