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Commentary: Austin's smart wireless strategy needs an upgrade

City's wireless infrastructure is as clogged as its streets and highways

Posted August 18th, 2016

Austin was recently named one of seven finalists in the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge. We ultimately lost the title to Columbus — along with a promised $40 million grant — but the Challenge did accentuate the essential need for complete wireless connectivity if Austin is ever to become a smart city.

Wireless connectivity amplifies every aspect of daily life, from improving transportation and public safety to enhancing business and personal communications. Yet Austin's current wireless infrastructure is as frustratingly clogged as its streets and highways, and the congestion will continue to escalate given population projections. Austin is America's fastest-growing city and shows no signs of slowing. Add large-scale events such as South by Southwest that draw hundreds of thousands of people and incredible international attention, and you have a gridlocked wireless network incapable of serving the extraordinarily high demand.

Mobile devices, once the wave of the future or a luxury of the privileged few, are now in the hands of the majority of Americans. Forty-eight percent of U.S. homes rely solely on cell phones, and 70 percent of 911 calls come from wireless devices. Many local businesses rely heavily on wireless not only to attract and maintain customers but also to process payments and connect with employees.

If entrepreneurs and employees cannot connect, they cannot work, exposing an ironic but not uncommon situation across this tech hub. For example, during SXSW in 2016, 38 percent of surveyed Austin residents reported poor or worse wireless service, and 25 percent of users faced app-related transportation problems. Clearly, boosting Austin's wireless infrastructure is a smart move.

One strategy is adding small cell streetscape poles that expand coverage and increase network capacity in densely populated areas where towers are not feasible or able to accommodate heavy-user traffic. These small cells are often inconspicuously installed on existing right-of-way street signs, telephone poles, or streetlights. They can also increase voice and data capacity for high-traffic venues like stadiums, convention centers, universities, hotels, and resorts. Better still, multiple small cells can provide greater capacity to a geographic site than a traditional tower while blending in aesthetically.

Cities like Portland, Seattle and Palo Alto all have small cell networks — as do all of the other finalist cities in the Smart City Challenge. Austin does not, and downtown Austin has been identified as an area in need by some of the nation's leading wireless carriers.

If wireless technology is to help mobilize transportation and public services, small cell solutions are paramount. Current innovations can enable vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, connecting cars to one another as well as to city organizations for tracking inclement weather, bad traffic and road closures. Law enforcement personnel could even selectively disable traffic lights to hasten emergency responses. Notably, though, the technology is only as efficient and effective as its network infrastructure allows.

It is estimated that 160 new people move to the Austin area each day. Many are young, self-employed innovators reliant on wireless devices for their livelihood. This trend is so profound that today, 43 percent of Austinites are between 18 and 44 years of age. As a top-tier technology city fueled by the new "gig economy," Austin must get smart and transform its wireless landscape to connect with the future and successfully compete with other cities.

Due to the inaction of city staff in delivering a policy for consideration by the City Council, Austin is falling behind competitor cities for this important enhanced technology. The Austin City Council should be leading the way in opening the door for the delivery of revenue-generating broadband infrastructure and welcoming a competitive environment to encourage the latest technology to our community. That forward-thinking mindset attracts high-growth, cutting edge tech companies to our community. Austin's political leadership seems to have adopted the paralysis by analysis mentality that high tech companies have been fleeing for years.

So, it's time for Austin's political leadership to meet the demands of current and future Austinites by acting now to upgrade the city's wireless infrastructure and maintain Austin's reputation as a top-tier technology city.

Kirk Wampler is vice president of network real estate at Crown Castle. He wrote this for the Texas Tribune's TribTalk.

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