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Guest Blog: What Can Cities Do To Prepare for the Next Generation of Mobile Networks?

In tech media, wireless and mobile technologies continue to make daily headlines in articles peppered with a plethora of terminology, such as: 5G, IoT, DAS, small cells, fixed wireless, licensed and unlicensed spectrum, LTE-U, LTE-M, and LoraWan to name a few. As we are still in the early stages of these networks, it’s easy to forgive local government leaders for writing off these stories as more sizzle than substance; more esoteric than essential.


However, to do so is a mistake because the public right of way is ground zero for the next generation of wireless networks, which will replace LTE 4G. Unlike previous mobile networks, which required macro towers on hilltops and high areas, small cells and 5G radios are designed to be installed on light posts and telephone poles in dense urban and suburban areas. These poles are sometimes city-owned, and as a result private providers are asking cities for more permits than ever before. Yet, cities are not always prepared to issue permits for cellular equipment on street poles. This can lead to deployment delays, lost opportunities, and frustration among the providers, who have already pushed for statewide legislation that would streamline the process (the controversial SB649 was opposed by many cities, including the City of San Leandro, who called it an overreach; it was vetoed by Governor Brown). Finding the right balance between a streamlined process and sufficient local control requires both sides to engage in good faith negotiations.


For cities, in order to prepare for these increased levels of permit applications, they likely need to update their wireless regulations, including ordinances, municipal codes, and master license agreements. There are several considerations to address, including:


  • License fees for usage of street poles, which should be market rate, based on reasonable studies of comparably sized municipalities, and should ultimately be included in the Master Fee Schedule
  • The usage of “Integrated poles” versus existing poles (integrated poles are newly deployed poles with the technology built in)
  • Design aesthetics & guidelines, which depend on local character and values
  • Electricity metering, which requires input with the local utility
  • And a discussion of municipal access to related fiber optics cabling, conduits, and networks pulled by the private providers


Ideally, your city will convene a cross-functional team to create these new standards utilizing staff from public works, civil engineering, planning, the city attorney’s office, city manager’s office, and information technology & GIS teams. An internal governance structure like this helps overcome organizational silos. The goal of this internal committee should not only be to create and enforce these new regulations, but to meet regularly to evaluate new permit applications to identify opportunities to further strengthen your municipal network and operations.


This also matters because the very same next generation networks are also highly likely to undergird Internet of Things (IoT) applications, like connected street lights, intelligent traffic signals, smart parking and utility meters, public safety systems, and more. These networks and applications will form basis for the “smart cities” of the future, where IoT, together with data analytics and machine learning, promise to provide new solutions for how we manage transportation, build greener buildings, and provide a higher quality of life in our congested cities. At the same time, as a society, our data consumption has skyrocketed and our residents will thus depend on 5G networks to keep up with our seemingly insatiable data demands.  


Many providers are willing to pay reasonable market rates and negotiate certain local control aspects, such as aesthetic guidelines to avoid ugly “Frankenpoles” and per-pole location decisions (e.g., in the event the city deems a particular location is detrimental to a residential unit or wants to ensure an underserved area is connected). However, in return, cities must be able to provide a streamlined, permitting process that is responsive, timely, predictable, and not overly difficult to navigate. Without the right City Staff working cross-functionally to achieve mutually agreeable outcomes, local governments may be unable to provide that level of service. If so, they risk losing out on opportunities to address the digital divide, capture new revenue streams and maintain the character of their community, while lowering the cost to deploy these networks by utilizing existing infrastructure and platforms.


This requires not just strong internal partnerships, but also resetting the relationship with telecommunications providers. By finding the intersection of goals between the public and private sectors, city leaders can negotiate with telecom firms as partners instead of adversaries. Doing so can speed the deployment of 5G networks, while ensuring that benefits to the public are maximized.


With some planning, foresight, and teamwork, the smart city of the future can be an invisible symphony of wireless harmony, transporting our bits and bytes, safely and securely.


But, we have to start practicing for it today.


Tony Batalla is the head of Information Technology for the city of San Leandro, CA. He also serves as the Co-Chair for the Global City Teams Challenge Wireless SuperCluster and has co-authored a blueprint for deploying Public Wi-Fi networks, available as a free download here: https://pages.nist.gov/GCTC/super-clusters/.


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