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CityLab
Economy

Cities Want Super-Fast Wireless Internet, But on Their Terms

Mayors, state lawmakers, and carriers can’t agree on who gets to regulate the deployment of next-gen wireless technology—and it’s crucial for the future of smart cities.
Among other things, cities worry that letting companies install "small cells" unregulated could compromise the aesthetic of their neighborhoods.
Among other things, cities worry that letting companies install "small cells" unregulated could compromise the aesthetic of their neighborhoods.Rogelio V. Solis/AP

In the race to make the U.S. a nation of smart cities, there’s no shortage of big ideas. Cities want to attach sensors to everything—streetlights, bridges, garbage trucks—and use the data they collect to predict things like potholes and traffic. They want their buildings to talk to residents via phones and wearables. They want the city grid to talk to cars. The list goes on.

But beneath all those ambitions lies a bigger challenge, one that’s at the heart of legal battles brewing between cities, states legislatures, and telecom companies in at least 17 states. For these projects to work out and scale up, cities are scrambling to build out the sort of high-speed, wireless infrastructure to support them. Among the most highly coveted is the much ballyhooed 5G network, which promises by 2020 to be anywhere between 10 and 100 times faster than what’s available now.