This op-ed by ATA’s executive director, David Edmonson, originally ran in the Austin American-Statesman on Thursday, September 27, 2018.

I read the Statesman’s article about the slow pace of small cell deployment – the necessary precursor to our wireless 5G future – and felt frustrated. How can our vibrant, high-tech, pioneering city be falling behind on such a crucial front?  

The answer, it appears, is bureaucracy, a death knell for innovation. Small cells and 5G wireless networks, with speeds up to 100 times faster than current networks, will revolutionize what is possible in the wireless space. Yet as providers announce that Texas cities like Dallas, Houston, and Waco will be receiving 5G in the near future, Austin is left on the outside looking in.

With a quickly growing population and world-renowned events like the Austin City Limits Festival, South by Southwest, and Rooster Teeth’s RTX Austin – all of which draw tens of thousands of people to town – our community has needed small cell technology for years just to meet the growing wireless network demands.  As Austin continues to grow with more and more connected devices, we need small cells more urgently than ever.

Small cells are a critical component to a 5G future because they deliver additional capacity in areas of network congestion. Around the size of a pizza box, small cells are often placed on street lights, the sides of buildings, or utility poles. This allows them to make wireless networks more “dense” so that devices connected to the internet can communicate with each other seamlessly and data-rich information like video can travel across networks without delay.

Without small cells, areas of network congestion like downtown Austin are a deal breaker for technologies like autonomous vehicles and many smart city innovations.  Very fast, reliable, and uninterrupted connectivity is essential for these advanced wireless applications.

But wireless providers, with millions of dollars ready to invest in Austin’s future, have only been successful in getting a handful of permits approved by the City of Austin – compared to hundreds in other Texas cities like Dallas and Houston. That’s disconcerting for Austin Tech Alliance members that are working to change the world with innovations that require next generation wireless networks.

Austin Tech Alliance is a nonprofit building a culture of civic engagement in Austin’s tech sector. In addition to helping tech employees cast informed votes at the ballot box, ATA promotes using tech as a tool to tackle our community’s most pressing challenges.

But being able to deploy that technology is often dependent on robust access to ultra-fast wireless networks. ATA members are already developing applications, services, and life-changing innovations that will rely on 5G networks. From transportation and telemedicine to energy efficiency and enhanced civic engagement, the possibilities of a 5G future are endless – or they would be if the companies trying to deliver the networks we need could overcome the bureaucratic hurdles.

In other words, 5G will become the standard that residents and visitors come to expect, but entrepreneurs and companies with the next big idea in mobile technology will demand it.

In July, 144 employees, entrepreneurs, and executives from Austin’s tech sector sent a letter to city leaders urging them to find ways to speed up the permitting process to help bring more small cell technology to our city.

As they wrote, small cells and 5G are “important to the future of our entire community, not just the tech sector. 5G will increase capacity to provide more reliable cellular service, close the health equity gap by powering improvements in telehealth like remote surgery and remote clinical services, and support smart city technologies that will move people and goods more safely and efficiently.”

I remain hopeful that Austin can step up and meet the challenges of building out the physical infrastructure required for the 5G future. After all, Austin should be leading, not falling behind.