Wireless data throughput is expected to increase nearly fivefold over the next four years, an increase driven by global data demand and made possible by new chipset technology and increased spectrum allocation.
Traditionally wired Internet service providers like Comcast and Charter are investing in mobile connectivity, alongside incumbent mobile network operators. Meanwhile, mobile network operators are recouping their spectrum investments to compete in the fixed wireless broadband market.
A quiet but critical race to deploy wireless networks nationwide is well underway.
For cities and towns, this rapid growth can be both a blessing and a curse
Increased demand for fixed and mobile wireless services means more infrastructure in the form of radios close to end users with annual small cell deployments in cities expected to grow at a compound annual rate of approximately 25% through 2026.
Uncoordinated growth can cause headaches and have lasting local and national implications for digital equity, urban landscapes and economic growth.
At the same time, cities that harness the wireless revolution can propel themselves into the future.
Wireless broadband can complement fiber technology, which can lower consumer costs and help bridge the digital divide.
And 5G mobile connectivity itself is quickly becoming a necessity. Communities without 5G will be cut off from upcoming technologies that can save lives and drive economic growth, including self-driving vehicles to service transit deserts, drone maintenance of critical infrastructure, and distributed renewable energy.
5G rollout needs to be carefully managed
Not all 5G build-outs are created equal.
If providers build discrete, separate networks, cities can be overwhelmed by allowing requests to mount radios on lampposts and street infrastructure.
If three different companies lock their technology to the same telephone pole, the city’s infrastructure will end up being congested and the city’s residents will understandably be frustrated.
These promising technologies could roll out slowly as city departments work on rolling out 5G, allowing for backlogs.
Worse still, service providers could end up building only in the richest areas, where they can most easily recoup their investment. Thus, communities and even entire towns at the margins can be left behind.
Decision makers have the ability to leverage their infrastructure and ensure that networks are built to be compatible with their goals. National and local authorities can use their influence to deliver real and lasting value to as many residents as possible.
Look for neutral hosts through public-private partnerships
Cities should prioritize competitive processes to select an open-access, neutral host infrastructure provider that can work with multiple operators to co-locate on shared infrastructure.
A neutral host can leverage private investment to accelerate network construction and organize service providers on behalf of the city, while keeping the process competitive.
This type of public-private partnership has a multiplier effect: private capital can be associated with any public financing of broadband and directed towards municipal priorities.
In this model, cities also retain control. Leaders can promote fair builds, ensure that neutral hosts commit to aesthetically cohesive and minimally invasive infrastructure, and even recoup some of the rent that neutral hosts charge service providers.
At Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, where I work, we believe the best type of neutral host for a city is one that allows multiple operators to share more than just passive pole infrastructure, and in doing so, reduce visual clutter of the deployment.
For this reason, SIP established its CoFi innovation platform and acquired Dense Air Networks, which uses software-defined networking techniques to share radios among multiple MNO tenants, dramatically reducing their rental costs and enabling MNOs to provide quality service in a cost-effective way in areas that would otherwise be underserved. .
Coordinate fiber and wireless builds to make best use of federal funding
Cities can now access unprecedented federal funding to accelerate connectivity.
In the recent infrastructure bill, the federal government allocated $65 billion for broadband expansion, in addition to the $10 billion made available through the US bailout.
These are huge sums, and like all government funding, they can be used for good or bad.
Much of this funding will go towards building fiber and, if done correctly, cities and their private fiber partners can leverage these dollars to ensure that fiber network plans anticipate and also enable wireless fingerprints.
Close consultation with neutral wireless hosts, MNOs, and ISPs can help cities get the most out of their federal dollars.
Cities can also avoid misconceptions of the past, such as one-off public Wi-Fi builds. These have largely become cost centers, and they rarely provide quality connections or span a significant geographic footprint.
Instead, cities can allocate funds to projects that are financially sustainable, which align incentives and help create networks that can last beyond the limits of federal funding.
The rollout of 5G offers cities an opportunity to correct past mistakes and bring millions of people online and into the digital economy.
Through innovation in public-private partnership models and technology, cities can and should harness the secular growth of wireless broadband to their advantage.
Noah Tulsky is a partner at Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), where he focuses on SIP’s CoFi platform, which works to advance shared broadband solutions, and the 5G strategy. SIP owns, operates and invests in innovative technology to transform infrastructure systems, delivering scalable solutions to society’s greatest challenges. Previously, Noah worked at Goldman Sachs, where he invested in the power and energy, transportation, telecommunications and data sectors on behalf of the firm’s infrastructure funds. This room is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.
Broadband Breakfast welcomes comments from knowledgeable observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to [email protected] Opinions expressed in expert reviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.