Mention the word “infrastructure” to a New Yorker and many will begin ranting about their latest subway delay or the gridlock that, somehow, has worsened in recent years. Fortunately, not all infrastructure is in such dire condition. One of the most essential physical structures that we all rely on – the wireless networks that power our mobile devices – is robust, reliable, and, incredibly, poised to improve as the next generation of service, 5G, looms on the horizon. Unfortunately, policymakers who have overseen the decline of our public infrastructure are in a position to hinder progress toward these new networks. At the state level, lawmakers are considering a bill that would greatly inhibit the construction of wireless networks. Meanwhile, here in New York City, officials have been slow to grant the approvals needed to jumpstart deployment. Unless and until more forward-looking, proactive policies are adopted, the mobile revolution as we know it could grind to a halt.
One of the many upsides of 5G is its architecture, which is key to its ability to deliver more capacity to users. 5G networks contain more component parts than other kinds of wireless networks, but these elements are more distributed in nature. This means that 5G networks will be built primarily of smaller elements that can be placed more discreetly on structures like traffic lights and light poles. Having so many nodes boosts bandwidth and reliability across the system and enables the emergent internet of things in a way that existing wireless systems cannot.
This is where the enormous promise of 5G becomes clear. These new networks will do much more than make Netflix stream better. They hold the potential to leverage sensors and other wireless equipment built into the environment around us so that innovators can tap into a torrent of new data and deliver critical real-time services. Education, healthcare, transportation, and government itself stand to be remade by this capability. Indeed, without ubiquitous 5G networks, innovations ranging from on-demand healthcare to autonomous vehicles may never fully take off.
For as transformative as these innovations will be, the use case for 5G that will likely resonate most profoundly and immediately with New Yorkers will be in the context of public safety, an issue that is always top of mind for residents. Widely deployed 5G will go a great way toward improving policing, enhancing transparency and accountability, and empowering citizens with new tools to protect themselves in an array of situations. In addition, these networks can help to speed response times and assist in relaying time-sensitive information during emergencies. Equally as important, the dense and diffuse nature of these networks will also bolster redundancy, further hardening wireless systems in the face of natural and man-made disasters. Such is critical in a city and state where these concerns are omnipresent.
As with every new generation of wireless service, there is fear mongering from a small but vocal contingent of Nimbyists. But the predicted benefits of 5G are far too great to give in to such alarmism. A more productive perspective would be to view the deployment of next-generation wireless networks as an opportunity for active collaboration between the public and the private sector so that these networks are built as quickly and safely as possible. To that end, consistency and predictability in the policies impacting the construction of these systems will be key to assuring truly ubiquitous and speedy deployment of this critical infrastructure. Acting now to develop such policies is thus essential to ensuring that New York remains a viable and vibrant tech hub that embraces innovation in all forms.