Is It Time to End “Smart Cities?”
For years, the talk of the future of connected communities has been centered in “smart cities.” Cloud services, broadband access, the Internet of Things, smart meters, parking apps, smart street lights, traffic management and so much more have all been discussed in terms of a remade urban landscape. But if you care about fresher food, open spaces, a different pace of life, conservation, broad economic success and so on, then the thinking needs to change. The future should grow from “smart states” to connecting urban, suburban and rural together, each with their own attractions, benefits and opportunities.
One of the key elements for connecting a smart state is plentiful broadband. The internet is a driver of the U.S. economy, responsible for an economic footprint of $421 billion and 2.9 million jobs. Specific to rural areas, the administration’s “Rural Prosperity Report” says, “E-connectivity, or electronic connectivity, is more than just connecting households, schools, and healthcare centers to each other as well as the rest of the world through high-speed internet. It is also a tool that enables increased productivity for farms, factories, forests, mining, and small businesses.” No wonder a clear majority of Americans agree that it is integral to our economy. That notion is informed by the provision of high-performance internet access to the vast majority of households, about 93 percent, in the United States – including millions in rural areas. But how to connect those last few percent, many of whom are in rural areas? Getting government out of the way is a great place to start.
Early this year, President Trump directed the Department of Interior to allow broadband companies to co-locate their equipment on infrastructure that the Department already has in place. This one simple change will make rural broadband more available and affordable in rural America. More generally, the wide variation in how broadband providers can access federal property causes dramatic slow-downs and great waste. Government needs to move at the speed of innovation, increasing inter-agency cooperation and developing stream-lined consistent processes. More than most improvements this would lead to faster, further reaching broadband deployment.
Another easy improvement would be to require conduits (plastic pipes thorough which wires can be pulled) in all appropriate infrastructure projects. This so called “dig once” approach saves money and also allows for more rapid deployment of new technologies. Such policies are already in place in Arizona, Minnesota and Utah, as well as several municipalities. Even improving access to rights of way would be a step in the right direction. Whether federal or state, access to rights of way should be sped up. Applications for approval to build out broadband infrastructure should be given a priority, perhaps placed on a “shot-clock” so that if action is not taken on an application it is automatically approved.
Additionally, fees and lease payments for right of way rental should be eliminated or at least minimized for access for broadband facilities. Similarly, rents set for attachment of broadband equipment and lines to existing poles must be carefully considered avoiding any truly arbitrary rate increase that slows deployment and increases costs to consumers.
When government acts it must carefully consider those actions. Any financial intervention by the government must focus on the incrementally next most costly areas that are currently unserved with no immediate future plans to be connected. Recently, Congress approved $600 million for rural broadband expansion via the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service. A similar fund under the previous administration wasted billions, limiting delivery on the promise to expand rural broadband. This sort of federal support should require local jurisdictions to find additional ways to remove any barriers to broadband deployment. The administration needs to be forward thinking, making sure that areas currently being served are not being “overbuilt,” wasting money while providing nothing new. Households with no broadband access should be the priority.
Where any legislation is concerned, particular technologies should not be the focus as there are no “future proof” technologies. Such technological neutrality has a great benefit — bringing all qualified broadband providers to the market to enhance the competition and ultimately benefits to consumers. Both fixed and wireless need to be considered as both are necessary. For example, 5G will be great for hyper local applications such as will be abundant in smart cities. But smart states will take a different and familiar approach, using a combination of new fiber and wireless. Other technologies, such as satellite, will also play a role.
While widely dispersed populations, such as those in rural areas of the United States, can be challenging to serve profitably, federal state and local governments can help in removing barriers. Broadband will make a difference in rural America, and by doing so will help the growth of smart states.