American Cities Are Fighting Big Business Over Wireless Internet, and They’re Losing

Big business is quietly trouncing cities in the fight over the future of the internet. The results of an obscure, bureaucratic battle inside the U.S. communications regulator could decide not only which Americans get ultra-fast internet but how much it’ll cost and even what city streetlights will look like.

On Wednesday, a committee created by the Federal Communications Commission will meet to frame the future of 5G, a technology that will make downloads dramatically faster on phones and perhaps replace home broadband for some. The group, with representatives of the business world outnumbering government officials four-to-one, may push for a vote on guidelines that have been under debate for more than a year.

It will be the first summit since Shireen Santosham and her boss quit in dismay. The city of San Jose, where Santosham works as chief innovation officer, resigned in late January from the wonky-sounding board, called the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. New York City later followed. The process came to embody a nationwide effort by telecommunications companies, like AT&T Inc. and Sprint Corp., to establish business-friendly rules for their industry, Santosham and other city officials allege.

The FCC, with guidance from the committee, could make rules that will influence how 5G mobile internet is priced, how quickly it spreads around the country and whether local governments must subsidize the cost. The 5G system is meant to replace today’s mobile wireless technology, making it easier to stream high-definition video anywhere and enable new kinds of apps. The cellular networks will use frequencies that carry a lot of information but don’t travel very far. That means antennas need to be close together and will number in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. They’ll be closer to shops and homes than today’s arrays atop cell towers.

The influence of Big Telecom inside the FCC has already spread into state capitols. More than a dozen states, mostly in Republican strongholds, have passed laws borrowing similar language from the 5G committee. U.S. lawmakers are drafting legislation along similar lines. “This is the biggest movement in broadband that we’ve seen in recent history,” Santosham said.

Santosham, a former McKinsey