Commentary: Seattle cannot afford to fall behind on 5G wireless technology

Sunset over the Seattle skyline. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Editor’s note: Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washington Technology Industry Association, stresses the importance of embracing next-generation wireless technology in this open letter to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

For more than a century, the Seattle region has led the world in technological innovation. Our private sector has redefined how we live and work in the 21st Century. We created airplanes that cut shipping and travel times across oceans from weeks to hours. We created software that put powerful analytical tools into the hands of every worker. We perfected e-commerce and, in the process, invented cloud computing that democratized the most expensive fixed cost of launching a tech business, creating many thousands of new jobs every year.

Our leadership in the next generation of internet technology, however, is at risk.

That technology, known as 5G, will provide a level of internet access previously unimagined. Broad access to 5G high-speed internet access will benefit everyone from students and sole proprietors to schools, hospitals, and corporations. Increased wireless broadband performance and capacity from the deployment of 5G will accelerate advancements in telemedicine and remote monitoring; improved vehicle safety systems; augmented reality applications for navigation and construction; and smart sensors that help us save energy, protect public safety, and improve air quality.

WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler. (Photo via WTIA)

Mayors and civic leaders in cities like Sacramento, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Charlotte, and Dallas all have seen the future and partnered with telecommunications firms to deploy 5G in their cities. These cities will see commercial launches starting this year, and they could leapfrog Seattle, capturing job growth and private investment that comes with this new wireless technology.

Equipping a city for 5G is a bit different than previous generations of wireless tech. Instead of a few large cellular towers placed on hilltops or rooftops, 5G requires thousands of small antenna placements throughout the city. This “small cell” technology is easily deployed on street lights, rooftops, and utility poles such as the thousands that are owned by Seattle City Light.

Seattle risks falling behind the rival cities because our system for providing telecommunication companies access to its poles is out of date. Our city leaders know this and are trying to streamline regulations and processes for companies to deploy 5G, but the system remains sluggish, confusing and expensive when compared with our new rival cities.

Despite the recent attempts to help companies navigate the complex application process, thousands of submissions are now backlogged. Wireless companies need an efficient, streamlined application process. They also need objectively reasonable, cost-based rates that assume equipment will be deployed on thousands of poles and other city-owned property to provide service throughout the metropolitan area. We aren’t trying to deploy a few new towers. We must install thousands of small cells to get 5G working in Seattle.

5G is essential to every company that relies on technology. Starbucks and Fred Hutch are as dependent on technology and internet access as Amazon and Microsoft. Our highly inventive startup ecosystem, already the envy of the world, will create thousands of new jobs in our region.

We urge the mayor to prioritize streamlining the small cell application process and implement cost-based rates. The effort required is minor relative to the other challenges this administration must contend with, and the benefit is enormous for all residents of Seattle. As a result, we will see a massive investment of private capital, ensuring our continued leadership in the next generation of internet technology.

Those who stop running in tech get left very far behind. We are leaders today. Let’s stay there.