Government Must Put Innovation First in Communications Innovation, Including 5G

Published August 10, 2018

In June, before a Senate committee, T-Mobile’s CEO John Legere and Sprint’s Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure discussed at length their combined company’s plans for 5G deployment if the government approves their merger. They positioned the merger as the key to making sure that America wins the global 5G race—the next major revolution for mobile communications.

5G requires new infrastructure, including small, closely spaced antennas as well as new investments in fiber, cell towers and base stations to accommodate all of the “backhaul”—i.e., the cable that connects cell towers to the backbone and carries your messages back through a broadband system. The result will be near ubiquity of high speeds that will enable more of everything, particularly in urban settings, and open the door to promised technological advancements such as self-driving vehicles and a robust internet of things.

But this change will not be easy and will not be a silver bullet for every situation. Politicians and bureaucrats will need to put innovation first and focus on communications innovation deployment rather than archaic rules.

The 5G rollout will require huge investments in infrastructure, so a certain and stable regulatory environment is necessary. This is yet another reason why the drive to restore Title II “net neutrality” regulation is harmful. Communications investment declined during the brief Title II period, and current efforts on Capitol Hill to restore such a regime create uncertainty and threaten investment and the rollout of new technologies.

Local governments are also often obstacles to deployment of communications networks, whether wired or wireless. Municipal governments often drag their feet or, worse, see permit applications as an opportunity for a shake-down. This needs to end. One solution is a “shot-clock” deadline for review, so that if a locality fails to act within a certain time frame, the application is automatically approved.

Government officials must review permit applications on a competitively and technology neutral basis, not based on unfair restrictions that favor certain providers over others. And fees for such applications should be limited to actual costs and should be transparent. This helps to ensure that the public benefits as quickly as possible, avoiding delays and cronyism.

The broadband industry has been the biggest infrastructure investor for many years. This huge investment, with private capital instead of taxpayer dollars, has delivered tremendous benefits, not only in terms of technology but also job creation. There is an obvious role for government to play in the 5G rollout, and it’s not to just get bigger—it’s to remove government impediments so the private sector can rollout 5G as quickly and as efficiently as possible.