The next big thing in wireless is on its way. It's called 5G, or fifth generation. It won’t be an incremental shift, like the move from 3G to 4G, but rather a quantum leap that greatly increases the speed and capabilities of handheld devices. It might even emerge as an competitor to cable.
There is a catch, a very sizable one.
This new technology doesn’t rely on large cells that stretch for miles and use the towers we’ve grown accustomed to. Rather, it uses microcells, which involve lots and lots of smaller antennae and other devices strewn about neighborhoods.
A typical microcell would be served by a small box, or in some cases multiple boxes, hung on existing telephone poles, street lights or buildings. Often, these small boxes would be accompanied by a much larger power box on the ground. These boxes would be situated roughly every 500 feet.
The idea that companies such as AT&T and Verizon would install boxes every 500 feet has gotten the attention of local governments. They represent homeowners and business owners with very strong views about the appearance of their properties.
Apparently, the wireless industry has a very dim view of these local interests. It is making a big push at the Federal Communications Commission and in select state capitals to cut them out of the decision-making.
That is shortsighted. If industry wants to ensure that the 5G rollout is fraught with delays and conflicts, it would do exactly what it's doing, which is conspire with Big Government to silence people with very strong and legitimate views on the appearances of their communities.
This is not to say that some streamlining of the approval process isn't in order. It is. But what's on the table goes way beyond prudent streamlining.
The FCC is expected to vote this month on its first measure, which would exempt 5G infrastructure from environmental and historic reviews. And more than a dozen states have passed laws stripping their local governments of any meaningful say on issues relating to where to put the 5G boxes.
A smarter approach would bar localities from turning the permitting process into a cash cow, but would give them input on where 5G boxes go and what they should look like. This kind of buy-in might seem burdensome. But it is necessary to prevent a grass-roots rebellion of property owners and community activists.
Virtually everyone agrees that 5G will be good for consumers, good for competition and good for the economy. Which is all the more reason to make sure that it doesn’t get delayed by a backlash.
This article originally ran on usatoday.com.