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Local Control, National Interests and Societal Outcomes in Implementing 5G

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

By Ian Hutcheson
January 25, 2021

5G wireless has finally arrived in most major metro areas across the United States. For many local governments, the promise of this technology has been dulled somewhat by its contentious implementation, which has pitted cities against telecom companies and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the battle for local control. In accordance with FCC guidelines, local governments must surrender most of their power over in regards to when, where and how telecom companies choose to implement 5G. In assessing the value of the current system of 5G implementation, it is more useful to focus on the beneficial societal outcomes that the technology can enable and the capacity of the current process for generating these outcomes.

Controlling Interests

The creation of fifth generation wireless networks in the United States has always contained a latent tension between local and national interests. This tension boiled over in 2018 when the FCC issued a mandate that restricted the fees cities were able to charge wireless operators, limited the time frames for approving permits and restricted the reasons for which governing bodies could deny applications. The declaratory ruling refers to the need to, “Eliminat[e] regulatory impediments that unnecessarily add delays and costs to bringing advanced wireless services to the public.”

In its 2018 letter of opposition to the FCC mandate, the United States Conference of Mayors cites apprehension over local property rights, franchising authority, and funding for services. When a coalition of cities lost their appeals case against the mandate in 2020, the hope for greater local control became more remote. With their leverage in negotiations with telecom companies severely curtailed, the coalition of cities would prefer a system of implementation which grants them the individual authority to determine when, where and how networks will be installed in their communities.

While conceding that both parties have legitimate concerns in preferring their own approach to implementation, it is surely the outcome that either method will generate for society what is most relevant to residents and businesses. Emphasizing the value of outcomes over process in the buildout of America’s 5G network reveals that while both approaches contain elements that could lead to positive outcomes, neither is wholly satisfactory.

Bridging the Divide

One of the important 5G outcomes that local governments worry the FCC mandate will negatively impact is closing the digital divide, or the gap within society between the technological “haves” and “have-nots.” Some local governments have been fortunate to negotiate separate agreements with 5G developers that included funding for equity initiatives, such as San Jose, California’s Digital Inclusion Fund. This fund will help provide internet access for the city’s nearly 100,000 residents currently without it.

The fee limitations established by FCC mandate prohibits local governments from charging more than $270 annually for a permit and $500 for an application. This leaves next to nothing for initiatives like San Jose’s which could help prevent 5G from exacerbating the digital divide. The FCC argues that lower fees give telecom companies the financial flexibility to expand access into underserved areas, but they are not required to. Local governments are naturally suited to promote digital equity for their residents, and in depriving them of this power, the FCC has created an opening for 5G implementation to produce damaging outcomes for closing the digital divide.

National Standards

A decentralized system of government provides many political and economic advantages to the United States, but it can also inhibit action on issues of national interest. The FCC mandate envisions 5G as such an issue in attempting to develop a national strategy that streamlines 5G implementation across states and localities with the standardization of fees and administrative review.

The benefits of a cohesive national approach to 5G implementation are observable in the experience of South Korea, which launched the world’s first commercial network in April 2019. In a 2020 academic paper for the Korea Economic Institute of America, author Clara Gillispie acknowledges that the policies of Republic’s government have been critical to the country’s rapid development of 5G networks. At the same time, Gillispie believes that regulatory holdups are preventing the country’s telecom industry from bringing further innovations to market. The implementation of 5G in South Korea illustrates that positive outcomes for consumers and businesses hinge on a coherent national policy and regulatory streamlining which have been promoted in the United States by FCC mandate.

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Despite the contentious manner in which 5G has been implemented in the United States, the transformative capacities of the technology are profoundly promising. The schism created between local authorities and the federal government by the FCC mandate is primarily over process, but there are important consequences for the outcomes of the technology. The standardization of fees and administration which the mandate stipulates will help telecom operators to bring the technology to new communities more quickly and reliably. The failure of the mandate to guarantee that operators do not exacerbate existing technological iniquities within society, however, is a potentially tragic misstep. In time, the outcomes which 5G is able to generate for American society will measure whether the current system of implementation has been successful.

Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA, is a Revenue Auditor for the City of Oklahoma City and the President of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: “ihutch01”

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