Accessing fastest internet speed will require lots of antennas. Where will they go?

You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about utility poles, but the people shaping the future do.

Much of what we envision for the years to come – from digital education to telemedicine to autonomous vehicles – will require internet service that is faster, more reliable and more ubiquitous. That future may not be as distant as some people think. To get there will require agreement about how to attach futuristic antennas to the same kind of wooden poles first used 200 years ago.

Telecoms are abuzz about the impending roll-out of 5G (fifth-generation) wireless technology. The jump from the current 4G technology is said to be dramatic: Speeds could be anywhere from 10 to 100 times faster, with near-instantaneous response time between networks and connected devices.

What’s the difference? Here’s how Bob Davis, vice president of government relations for Verizon, put it in a recent presentation to legislators when talking about how the new technology would work with driverless cars:

“If you use the current, 4G technology to try to stop a car … it would take about 10 seconds,” he said. “So obviously that would not work. With the 5G, high-band spectrum, it’s milliseconds.”

That’s truly the difference between life and death.

Davis was speaking at a meeting of the House Rural Development Council in Blue Ridge on May 16. Two days earlier, at a Metro Atlanta Chamber event, industry representatives also talked about the importance of 5G to Georgia’s largest city. When one idea resonates in both rural and urban Georgia, it’s worth paying attention.

What brought those two crowds together, though, wasn’t just the technology itself. It was the challenge of deploying it across a state with 159 different counties, even more cities, and all their various approaches to regulating and permitting.

To reiterate, 5G technology will require lots of small antennas, known as small cells. They may be attached to buildings in some cases, but more often they’ll be perched atop utility poles, lampposts, traffic signals, all sorts of things that are elevated – and, the vast majority of time, owned by someone other than the company with the antenna.

Most of the time it will be a pole or post owned by a city, a county or a power company (Georgia Power or an electric membership corporation) and standing in a public right-of-way managed by any of those or, in some cases, the state Department of Transportation.

The various parties have spent months and months talking to one another. As of today, though, they have not settled on a standard way of handling permit requests for these small cells.

The scope of this work is huge: At least initially, small cells will need to be within 250 to 750 feet of each other, since one trade-off for the faster speeds and lower latency is shorter range. That, plus the aforementioned need for ubiquity, means some regulatory streamlining is in order. Nineteen states, including Florida, North Carolina and Tennessee, have passed bills to provide that streamlining as well as capping the fees pole owners can charge for access. They are better-positioned than Georgia to garner early investment in this technology.

“This is a competitive industry,” Davis told legislators. “Cost is a significant factor” in where a company such as Verizon spends its limited capital.

Georgia’s legislators seem reluctant to intervene in the negotiations unless they absolutely must. It needn’t come to that. The local communities and utilities that own these poles would benefit from having 5G every bit as much as the telecoms would from providing it. They can and should work this out on their own.

Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.