Curing Communications Policy Myopia
Several years ago some politicians sparred over whether American entrepreneurs really "built" their companies by themselves, or if their success was due in part to government assistance or the aid of someone else who helped the entrepreneur along the way. Though a hot political potato at the time, the reality is that government public policy can indeed be a significant contributor, or significant detractor, to the growth of companies, the enhancement of competition, the adoption of technological advance stimulating economic growth and the consumer benefits of lower prices and better products through such competition and innovation.
Businesses -- like citizens -- use public roads and benefit from services and structures provided and/or regulated by the government. When government partners with businesses to remove barriers to the provision of valuable and affordable services to the public, the entire community is a winner. Now that we're deeply embedded in the digital broadband age, it is essential that government officials take a thoughtful and pro-consumer stance in setting public policy for well established, relatively new and also proposed communications technologies.
This government cooperation is not new. Decades ago federal policies gave local zoning protection for antennas of amateur radio (or "HAM") operators providing the lifeline of communication in times of natural and other disasters. Though using a now mature (a.k.a. "old") communications technology, HAM operators again this year have helped us all cope with hurricanes, floods and electric power outages knocking out other communications services.
Cellular/mobile radio service came into being in large part due to federal rules outlawing excessive local zoning board delays and baseless rejections of wireless companies' efforts to provide urban and rural services. Introduction and expansion of cable TV service in the US was aided by government policy letting cable companies use public rights of way.
Competition to cable TV got a boost when regulators lifted homeowner association and zoning restrictions on consumers' use of small dish satellite TV -- such as DirecTV and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) -- antennas. Similarly forward-thinking state governments adopted statewide franchising (as opposed to a series of drawn-out, town-by-town franchise hearings) of cable television companies and those wishing to compete with cable, such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s U-verse and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s FiOS. This jumpstart of cable competition also let telcos begin offering high-speed broadband services more quickly and in more places.
Not all middle school hall monitors grow up to be local zoning board officials or public policy Luddites. However, land use and communications policymakers sometimes fail to realize that limiting new structures and impeding new technologies may not advance the interests of taxpaying citizens. As wireless companies now are working to roll out lightning-fast broadband 5G services, we again need government officials to recognize and foster genuine public benefits.
Technologists know that 5G, delivering data and video at speeds once unimaginable, is a realistic and affordable economic development tool for localities. However, installing a 5G broadband communications antenna smaller than a pizza box typically requires approval from local zoning authorities, town councils and/or other public agencies pursuant to regulations and processes intended for locating 200-foot or even larger towers. (See Bright Lights, Smart City: A 'Street Furniture' Exploration.)
Lawmakers need to step up to the plate and streamline approvals for small cell deployment and do what their government predecessors have done in the past to help ensure that Americans benefit in myriad ways from communications technologies. This does not mean that every request will be approved, nor that all companies simply will be waved through the process. Rather, it means adjusting regulations so that they don't bog down the deployment of a 24-inch piece of equipment with hearings and legal proceedings intended for review of vastly larger structures.
Streamlined approval processes would not preclude municipalities from being compensated fairly for use of their utility poles, lands or buildings. But local authorities must not eye 5G infrastructure buildout fees as a way of making inflated deposits in their personal ATMs.
High-speed broadband access now is critical to every US citizen and business, and is the key to our Internet-based economy. Broadband, especially mobile broadband, is a proven catalyst for local and nationwide job growth, advanced healthcare and telemedicine services, quality education at all grade and age levels as well as a better quality of life. The broadband benefits of 5G will ensure the 21st century "livability" of our towns, states and country. Let's hope government policymakers share this vision.
— Barry Umansky, Professor of Telecommunications, Ball State University, and Senior Fellow, Digital Policy Institute (DPI) at Ball State University