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 5th 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 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 small-cell 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.”