Going mobile: Can state policy keep up?

A digital illustration of a satellite dish transmission. (Photo: Hywards, Shutterstock)

The world is going mobile. We use our mobile devices to hail a ride, deliver groceries, watch movies, stream music, text friends, email colleagues and share photos. And yes, even to make phone calls. However, across California, too many communities lack access to high-speed wireless Internet. A bill (AB 57) currently before the California Legislature would help by speeding the installation of advanced wireless communications equipment. It deserves approval and Gov. Brown’s signature.

Like cars on a freeway, the increasing number of mobile devices in everyday life can cause congestion on existing wireless communications networks.

High-speed wireless Internet isn’t just about streaming Game of Thrones on your tablet. The stakes are much higher. A report released in mid-April by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute – 21st Century Infrastructure: Keeping California Connected, Powered and Competitive — described the importance of advanced wireless communications networks in growing our innovation economy and keeping us competitive globally. According to the report, the most critical assets of California’s future economy will rely on wireless Internet technology—including renewable energy, smart agriculture, education, healthcare and advanced manufacturing. There also are important implications for public safety, where a dropped call to 911 could be the difference between life and death.

The transition to a wireless world is already taking shape. In 2013, global data traffic from mobile devices was 18 times greater than all Internet traffic in 2000, and is expected to increase another 11-fold by 2018. Our own 2015 Bay Area Council Poll released in May found that 70 percent of Bay Area residents surveyed rely on their smartphones for daily tasks, up from 63 percent in 2014.

Here’s the challenge: Like cars on a freeway, the increasing number of mobile devices in everyday life can cause congestion on existing wireless communications networks, decreasing speed and reliability. To keep pace, wireless service providers are racing to invest tens of billions of dollars to upgrade wireless equipment. By facilitating these improvements, local communities can help create jobs while making sure their residents don’t get left behind.

As it stands today, installing new cellular antennas and other equipment requires getting local permits. Easier said than done. For a variety of reasons, approval for even the simplest of projects can drag on for years, resulting in spotty service and delayed investments.

The problem is not new. The Federal Communications Commission recently developed rules requiring the processing of wireless permit applications within 90 days for small projects and 150 days for larger projects.

AB 57 provides a common sense solution. First, AB 57 protects local government control by maintaining the exact same review and approval powers over wireless communications projects as exists today. It also requires local governments to make an up-or-down decision on a timeframe consistent with federal law. Projects that aren’t rejected in the 90-150 day window get the green light.

Today, advanced mobile communications technology is capable of improving the way California uses water, develops clean energy, ensures public safety and supports many other critical services. And yet, the adoption of high-speed wireless Internet remains uneven. Ensuring all California communities are able to enjoy access to these benefits is a matter of fairness, and should be a statewide economic imperative. AB 57 provides a common-sense approach that will speed investments and keep local communities in control. It deserves our support.

Ed’s Note: Jim Wunderman is President and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a business-led regional public policy organization.

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