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OLYMPIA, Wash. — 5G sounds cool. Who doesn’t want a faster Internet? But real-world problems — including safety, costs and permitting — face Washington state as the wireless industry gears up to move from 4G to 5G in the next few years.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale and chairman of the state Senate Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, wants to introduce a bill this session to address those issues.

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, (Handout Photo)

“My goal is to get a very comprehensive 5G piece of legislation passed. My goal is when someone gets off the plane at SeaTac, he says: ‘Wow! You guys have the fastest Internet in the world. I don’t want an interim work plan [out of the 2017 legislative session)]. I want to get it done this year,” Ericksen said.

The Senate committee held a briefing on that topic Wednesday in Olympia. 5G is the fifth generation of wireless phones and wireless technology, promising to increase download speeds by up to 10 gigabits per second — enough to download a full HD movie in “a matter of seconds.”

Testimony indicated that there are six potential 5G providers in the state. The majority of Washington hit the 4G threshold around 2010. The national 5G threshold is expected to materialize between 2018 and 2020, depending on who is doing the predicting. Roughly 30 states are pondering whether to legislate on upgrading to 5G.

Internet traffic has increased threefold since 2013 with 60 percent of that being video, said Beth Cooley, state legislative affairs director for the CTIA wireless association, at Wednesday’s briefing session. She cited a Tax Foundation study that found that the state’s wireless-related taxes — local and state sales taxes, plus 911 taxes, plus federal taxes — are the highest in the nation, at 25.4 percent.

The backbone of evolving to a 5G system will be so-called “small cells” — essentially wireless transmitters, less than six cubic feet in size, likely to be attached to telephone and power poles.

Jim Blundell of T-Mobile holds the company’s version of a “small cell.” (Photo by John Stang)

People who testified on Wednesday said small cells will compete for space with other utility boxes and wires on power poles. There would be the problem of figuring out which poles should hold the small cells. Would other equipment on a power pole need to be rearranged to accompany a small cell, which would likely need to be near or at the top of the pole? Would maintenance workers have to climb around or over other pole-mounted wires and devices to reach the small cells? There is an aesthetics issue of lots of equipment and wires clumped together on a power pole.

Another wrinkle is that many utility lines are below ground level, meaning utility poles are not available for the small cells. To get a handle on the scope of installing 5G technology, Ericksen asked how many small cells need to be installed in Seattle. No industry representatives answered that question Wednesday.

Cooley said major hurdles include 5G having to obtain right-of-way to install the small cells, some localities charging excessive fees for installation permits, and some local governments setting 18- to 24-month turnaround times to process permit applications.

Another wrinkle is that Washington’s densely populated areas have 5G capabilities, while some rural areas barely achieve a 3G level of service.

Victoria London, representing the Association of Washington Cities, said Spokane, Kirkland, Kenmore and Sammamish have already updated their local laws to deal with upgrading to a 5G system. Many more local governments are revamping their laws to deal with 5G upgrades — with 2 million of the state’s roughly 7 million people living within those jurisdictions, she said

She voiced concern on whether a new state 5G law might conflict with or override local-level 5G laws being worked on. London said: “It looks simple. But it’s not. There are a lot of issues to be worked through.”

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