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The tech hub that Amazon and Microsoft call home is typically referred to as simply “Seattle.” But zooming in, there are two distinct communities — separated by Lake Washington and a host of cultural differences — that could be further stratified by a new wave of technology promising to transform our lives.

That technology is 5G, the next generation of wireless service that is expected to pave the way for smarter cities, faster downloads, self-driving cars, and countless other innovations that are hard to predict, just as Uber and Lyft couldn’t be anticipated until 4G made their business models possible.

Seattle and nearby Bellevue, Wash., present a unique case study in how municipal governments are approaching 5G; the power struggle between cities and the federal government over the new technology; and the private sector’s fervor for next-generation wireless. With so many competing stakeholders and complex factors, tech leaders worry Seattle will fall behind in the race to 5G.

FCC lays down a mandate

Cities that want to see 5G rolled out for their residents face some big obstacles. There’s tension between municipalities and the federal government over how to attract investment from 5G wireless carriers.

Another major hurdle is both technical and procedural. Permits and fees were designed for 4G cell towers, which can transmit signals over several miles between pole attachments. The key to 5G’s speed is the high-frequency waves that travel over short distances.

To make that possible, wireless carriers need to install more small-cell antennas more densely, which changes the dynamics of pricing and permitting. A small cell is a backpack-sized device that can be attached to telephone poles, streetlights, and other infrastructure. Small cells are connected by fiber optic cables, allowing them to transmit large amounts of data. In many cities, small cells are being deployed to support 4G networks, with the ability to upgrade to 5G down the road.

A year ago, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order that says cities should charge 5G providers no more than $270 per utility pole attachment, per year, in an effort to accelerate deployment of the technology.

In principle, Seattle and Bellevue are on the same page when it comes to that order. Both municipalities joined a multi-city, nationwide lawsuit challenging the order and claiming $270 is too low.

But the similarities in their approaches end there.

Bellevue is making 5G a high priority and adopting the FCC’s $270 pole attachment fee, despite the legal challenge. Seattle is not following the order, charging seven times more at approximately $1,947 per pole attachment, per year.

Bellevue does plan to increase pole attachment fees to $1,500 per year if the legal challenge is successful. Brad Harwood, Bellevue’s chief communications officer, said $1,500 is “fair market value.”

The FCC’s order also asks cities to issue permits for 5G installations within 90 days in an effort to accelerate what can be long wait times for telecom companies. The labor cost for processing permit applications across different city departments is one reason municipalities, like Seattle, say they need to charge more for pole attachments to recover their costs. Seattle has a multi-step permitting process that can take months or even years.

Downtown Bellevue, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Heeding the FCC’s mandate, Bellevue created a master licensing agreement that allows wireless carriers to apply for just one permit to deploy small cell equipment on streetlight poles. Under the master licensing agreement, Bellevue has commitments from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Crown Castle, and is waiting for those carriers to begin deployments.

“Telecom is in our DNA,” said Jesse Canedo, Bellevue’s chief economic development officer, in an email. “We are the headquarters for T-Mobile USA, the third-largest wireless carrier in the U.S., and employer for more than 5,000 local residents. That didn’t happen by accident, we’ve been at the forefront of the telecommunications industry for decades … our residents and our workers expect us to be on the leading edge of the industry.”

The cities east of Seattle, commonly known as the Eastside, have a long history in wireless, dating back to the 1980s. That includes McCaw Cellular, a wireless pioneer that AT&T scooped up for $11 billion in 1994. McCaw’s success sparked a new wireless ecosystem, with investors fueling companies like VoiceStream, Clearwire, and Teledesic.

As Canedo noted, T-Mobile gives Bellevue another reason to prioritize next-generation wireless. The carrier is competing aggressively to be a leader in 5G. The promise to roll out nationwide 5G is a centerpiece of T-Mobile’s bid to combine with former rival Sprint.

T-Mobile, along with the City of Bellevue, the University of Washington and venture capital firm Quake Capital, applied with the State of Washington to designate parts of Seattle, Bellevue, and Redmond, Wash., as a 5G “Innovation Partnership Zone,” an alliance of institutions, government organizations and companies. The linchpin of the plan is a new 5G Open Innovation Lab that will include an incubator for startups that are dependent on future 5G networks.

A map of the Innovation Partnership Zone.

The Bellevue way of approaching innovation, challenges, and service delivery is rooted in partnership,” Canedo said. “It takes stakeholders and perspectives from all sides to grow a region and do it well. We believe that proactive, constructive engagement with our public sector, business, and non-profit peers provides better outcomes than us trying to do it alone or in a vacuum.”

Bellevue’s combined efforts to court 5G carriers have some leaders in the region’s tech industry concerned that Seattle will fall behind. As Michael Schutzler, CEO of the Washinton Technology Industry Association, put it, “if not the last, we’re not going to be the first.”

The ‘Seattle Process’

Ed Lazowska speaking at UW. (GeekWire Photo)

Tech leaders are concerned that the infamous “Seattle Process,” could be an obstacle on the path to 5G. Ed Lazowska, a fixture at the University of Washington’s computer science school, likened it to the hoops that internet providers had to jump through to deliver broadband service in Washington 20 years ago.

“Permitting took forever because each little jurisdiction had to be dealt with separately – every few miles you had to get a permit from someone else,” Lazowska said in an email. “Other states had put into place over-arching permitting – sort of one-stop shopping.”

“To me, this is a lot like the 5G story,” he added. “The companies are going to invest in deploying the technology where it’s easiest to do so, from the point of view of permitting, cost, etc. So, does Seattle want to be near the front of the line, or near the back of the line?”

But Seattle is implementing some of the changes the tech industry wants to see. The city is working to streamline its process for approving pole attachment permits and plans to roll out a more simplified application in early 2020.

Update: In November, the Seattle Department of Transportation unveiled its design standards for small cell antennas, signaling the city is thinking proactively about 5G deployments.

Dayna Lurie represents Crown Castle, a company that deploys wireless equipment in Seattle and other cities around the country. She said her client is “very optimistic that things are going to really start moving forward” when the streamlined process is introduced.

“I think that Seattle understands that they are their own worst enemy when it comes to this and they’re really trying to figure out a way to catch up,” she said. “There’s this whole race to 5G and I know Seattle doesn’t want to be left behind.”

Seattle does have some catching up to do. Lurie said Crown Castle already has “about two year’s worth” of 4G permit applications that are still pending.

Anthony Derrick, digital advisor to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, said Seattle IT has permitted some applications that could be used for 4G or 5G equipment.

“Ensuring that we are making smart investments in the technology of the future is one of Mayor Durkan’s top priorities,” he said. “The City of Seattle collaborates with telecom carriers to provide efficient and stable processes when developing the next-generation infrastructure.”

There are also equity issues for Seattle to consider. In a city where some neighborhoods are already underserved by wireless and broadband carriers, experts warn 5G could widen the digital divide.

“When you’re giving those who are connected super connectivity and the people who are struggling to be connected are still waiting for solutions, we have this new chasm,” said Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, an organization that helps communities improve broadband access. “It’s not just that it’s the classic digital divide, it makes it even harder to overcome that divide.”

WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler. (WTIA Photo)

Schutzler, of the WTIA, thinks it’s imperative for Seattle move forward despite those concerns. He worries about Seattle’s future if it doesn’t keep pace with other cities that are embracing 5G.

“We lose the ability to credibly declare ourselves as being a tech hub … we’ve had tech companies that just five years ago were talking about moving out of Bellevue and moving into Seattle and now the direction is the opposite,” he said. Schutzler is concerned the result will be “less jobs in this city and more jobs in Bellevue.”

Learning from 5G leaders

Cities that want to be fast-movers on 5G are hurrying to update their processes to accommodate networks that require more equipment, installed more densely on city infrastructure.

Streamlining permitting appears to be one of the most effective tools for cities that want to encourage 5G deployment. It worked in San Jose, Calif., even though the city charges more for pole attachments than the FCC would like.

San Jose officials negotiated with wireless carriers and settled on agreements to charge between $750 to $2,500 per pole attachment, depending on the pole’s location. Those agreements were established before the FCC issued its guidance, which San Jose is challenging along with Seattle, Bellevue, and other cities. San Jose’s fee structure is designed to encourage wireless carriers to deploy 5G equipment evenly throughout the city.

“Our tiered pricing structure incentivizes build-out to our entire community rather than cherry-picking neighborhoods,” said Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer for San Jose.

San Jose used the money it raised through those agreements to retool its operations, allowing the city to issue permits in about 30 days, half of the FCC’s recommended permitting time. Leftover funds are earmarked for digital inclusion programs in the city. San Jose has agreements with all of the major telecoms to deploy 5G, according to Santosham. AT&T plans to start deployments sometime next year.

“The narrative that’s been out there has been we just need to make this cheaper for the companies and they will deploy 5G everywhere,” Santosham said. “But the reality is, if we don’t create the right incentives or obligate companies to build in lower-income communities, it may not happen. How this stuff is deployed is really important so we don’t deepen the digital divide.”

Although some cities have an early start building 5G infrastructure, it’s still a little early to call the score. A lot needs to happen before next-generation wireless technology becomes a reality for consumers. Carriers need to deploy thousands of antennas and transmitters, spectrum must be reallocated, and consumers need to purchase 5G-enabled devices.

“All of those pieces need to come into play and if one of them isn’t in play, you can’t really deliver that 5G service in a particular area,” said Viet Nguyen, public relations and technology director for 5G Americas, a trade group representing 17 of the largest network operators and manufacturers around the world. “So it’s fairly early but the time is running out.”

Nguyen believes cities still have time to prepare for the coming wave of 5G.

“Seattle can definitely accelerate that process,” he said. “One thing that they could do is take a look at what some of the other cities have done around the area.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Crown Castle’s name.

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