Need for speed

In race for 5G net­works, Austin might be fall­ing be­hind

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Sebastian Her­rera

The world’s largest telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies are rac­ing to­ward the next gen­er­a­tion of wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion, dubbed 5G. But in Austin, a metro area usu­ally known for tech in­no­va­tion, the go­ing is slow.

Al­though com­pa­nies such as AT&T have started to lay the ground­work for 5G net­works in Austin, progress here has been slow in com­par­i­son to what com­pa­nies have been able to as­sem­ble in other large metro ar­eas such as Dal­las and Hous­ton, which ex­ec­u­tives said have had an eas­ier per­mit­ting process for the de­vices that will con­nect 5G.

Ex­perts say 5G, which refers to the fifth gen­er­a­tion wire­less broad­band tech­nol­ogy — es­sen­tially mean­ing ul­tra high-speed wire­less con­nec­tions — is im­por­tant not only be­cause it will power fu­ture waves of mo­bile de­vices, but also be­cause it will be cru­cial for other evolv­ing tech in in­dus­tries such as automotive and health care.

The new 5G tech­nol­ogy “will be able to un­lock the new wave of ca­pa­bil­i­ties in tech ap­pli­ca­tions and in new mar­kets,” said An­gelo Zino, a wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion an­a­lyst at in­vest­ment re­search firm CFRA. “What’s re­ally go­ing to drive this all is high band­width ac­cess — hav­ing that in the right place.”

Wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion mainly lives through large cell tow­ers op­er­ated by telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion com­pa­nies. The dif­fer­ence with 5G, ex­perts say, is that net­works will also in­clude smaller cell de­vices in­stalled through­out cities on in­fra­struc­ture such as traf­fic lights that will al­low a higher fre­quency spec­trum known as mil­lime­ter waves to be trans­mit­ted. Com­pa­nies have said they ex­pect 5G to be up to 100 times faster than the cur­rent 4G net­works.

AT&T re­cently opened what it calls a 5G test­ing lab in North Austin. The lab, one of sev­eral AT&T has through­out the coun­try, is a test­ing ground for 5G sig­nal

trans­mit­ters and how they han­dle cer­tain con­di­tions, ac­cord­ing to Bob Dig­neo, an as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent for AT&T’s Texas op­er­a­tions.

The com­pany said 13 per­mits for its small cell net­works have been ap­proved by the city of Austin. But to fully pre­pare Austin for 5G-en­abled de­vices that are promised to come, Dig­neo said, the city will need to ap­prove hun­dreds of small­cell net­works for in­stal­la­tion. He said the per­mit­ting process for AT&T and oth­ers has moved slower in Austin than in other cities.

For ex­am­ple, in Dal­las, where AT&T is head­quar­tered, the com­pany said 25 times more small cell net­works have been ap­proved than in Austin. Dal­las is one of about a dozen lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Hous­ton, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Or­leans and San An­to­nio, where AT&T is set­ting up a full 5G oper­a­tion.

“Get­ting per­mits sub­mit­ted and ap­proved around the state is our big­gest pri­or­ity,” Dig­neo said.

Sim­i­larly, Ver­i­zon Wire­less is re­port­edly plan­ning to roll out 5G ser­vice in four cities by the end of the year, and the com­pany has also opened 5G labs in cities on the East and West coasts. And on Tues­day, T-Mo­bile an­nounced a $3.5 bil­lion sup­plier con­tract with Swedish telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions firm Eric­s­son to help the car­rier cre­ate 5G net­works.

Ver­i­zon spokes­woman Jean­nine Braggs said that Austin’s per­mit­ting process “equally im­pacts all tech com­pa­nies.”

Mes­sages left with Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s of­fice and the city of­fice of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and reg­u­la­tory af­fairs were not im­me­di­ately re­turned.

Zino, the CFRA com­mu­ni­ca­tion an­a­lyst, said while the in­dus­try ex­pects 5G to be in­tro­duced soon, it will take time for the new net­works to be in­stalled and used across the United States and for 5G-pow­ered de­vices to be­come main­stream.

The pos­si­bil­i­ties for 5G, how­ever, are al­ready cre­at­ing in­vest­ment through­out in­dus­tries that could ben­e­fit from the tech­nol­ogy, Zino said. In ad­di­tion to wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion, 5G is ex­pected to en­able ul­tra­fast in­ter­net con­nec­tions for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, ro­botic de­vices, smart homes, med­i­cal tools and pub­lic safety net­works, among other tech­nolo­gies.

In Austin, stake­hold­ers such as Uber, Dell, Google, T-Mo­bile and AT&T have banded to­gether to cre­ate the Texas 5G Al­liance, a 5G lob­by­ing group that says its mis­sion is to first ed­u­cate Texas res­i­dents about 5G tech­nol­ogy.

“The city, the in­dus­try and the pub­lic all play crit­i­cal roles,” 5G Al­liance spokesman Scott Du­n­away said.

A re­cent study from man­age­ment con­sult­ing com­pany Ac­cen­ture that re­lies on his­tor­i­cal wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion data es­ti­mated that 5G will cre­ate $275 bil­lion in pri­vate in­vest­ment. A 2017 re­port from re­search and ad­vi­sory firm Gart­ner es­ti­mates that there will be 20.4 bil­lion con­nected de­vices glob­ally by 2020.

With that type of de­mand, Dig­neo said, he ex­pects Austin’s 5G con­nec­tiv­ity to even­tu­ally be on par with other cities.

But much like any other new tech­nol­ogy, Dig­neo said the push for 5G also faces an­other chal­lenge: that of get­ting peo­ple — both in­side and out­side city halls — to un­der­stand and trust the net­works.

“The need for 5G is ul­ti­mately driven by con­sumers and de­mand for faster, high-qual­ity com­mu­ni­ca­tions on their smart­phone and tablets and por­ta­ble de­vices,” Dig­neo said. “5G is the next quan­tum leap to pro­vide that level of ac­cel­er­ated ser­vice.”

SEONGJOON CHO / BLOOMBERG NEWS

Dis­plays pro­mote 5G at the World IT Show 2018 in Seoul, South Korea, in May. Ex­perts say 5G is key not only be­cause it will power fu­ture mo­bile de­vices, but also be­cause it will be cru­cial for evolv­ing tech in in­dus­tries such as automotive and health care.

MINH UONG / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ex­perts say 5G net­works will in­clude cell tow­ers and smaller cell de­vices on in­fra­struc­ture like stop­lights to al­low a higher fre­quency spec­trum known as mil­lime­ter waves.

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