Minnesota State Reps Should Consider Small Cell Legislation

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A proposal now before the Minnesota Legislature could cement the state’s position as a national leader when it comes to ensuring its citizens and businesses — large and small — have access to the most advanced mobile broadband networks possible. Yes, this is an opportunity for Minnesota to shine.

The question on the table is how to expedite the process of deploying the infrastructure needed to power 5G, the most advanced wireless broadband network technology to come to market in the history of mobile networking. Engineers are reporting that 5G will deliver data and video at speeds once unimaginable, making the technology a realistic and affordable economic development tool for localities as much as it will be for businesses and citizens. But how fast citizens of any state can realize the benefits of 5G will depend on which state can most quickly and effectively clear the regulatory underbrush slowing down deployment of the network equipment needed to make 5G a reality. Minnesota’s small cell legislation (House File 739 and Senate File 561) is intended to do just that. This legislation should be applauded and supported.

In many localities, installing a communications antenna smaller than a pizza box typically requires approval from local zoning authorities, town councils and other public agencies — and under rules that tend to differ from city to city and town to town. And because permission for small cells is usually negotiated separately with each service provider, there’s a chance that one service provider gets a green light while another runs into roadblocks — meaning that the latter’s customers simply lose out.

But passage of Minnesota’s small cell legislation would give state lawmakers the chance to streamline approvals for small cell deployment. If enacted, the legislation also would ensure that every municipality is fairly compensated for use of their utility poles. But, it would eliminate the chance of “sweetheart deals” that hurt consumers by favoring one competitor over another.

At the core of the legislation is easier deployment of small cells — meaning that wireless service will remain reliable even when major events like the Super Bowl, set for Minneapolis in 2018, create a huge boost in the number of people trying to get online at the same time and in a relatively confined area. As Marie Ellis of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce explained recently, “We want families at the Winter Carnival to be able to post their cute pictures on social media or send to grandma quickly and easily. We want people in town for the Super Bowl next year to show their friends how fantastic our region is, and that requires good [wireless] coverage.”

Small cell deployment also can help local communities improve the services it offers its citizens, while saving money. Towns will be able to deploy systems that make real-time adjustments to things like snow removal routes, trash pickups, traffic management and electric power grids. Minnesota could be among the very first states to realize these benefits, but only if it updates its policies to make deployment of small cells easier and faster.

Citizens who want to reap the benefits of life on the cutting edge should tell state lawmakers to vote “aye” on HF 739 and SF 561.

Barry Umansky is a longtime Washington communications attorney who now is Co-Director and Senior Policy Counsel of the Ball State University Digital Policy Institute, as well as a professor in that university’s telecommunications department.  He was a guest speaker at the annual Broadband Conference in Saint Paul on February 23rd where he discussed the future of telecommunications, the evolution of the next generation of wireless technology called 5G, and how small cells can help advance the deployment of 5G technology.  He is a graduate of Carleton College and the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.

Barry Umansky, Ball State University Digital Policy Institute

March 14, 2017   

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