Key players warn Austin is being left behind in 5G future

Austin

While companies ramp up to offer 5G service for cell phones, lawmakers and providers say Austin will be left behind because the city is slow rolling a permitting process.

In 2017, lawmakers passed a law that made it cheaper and easier for major companies — AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint — to bring 5G speed and service to their customers in 2019 at the expense of city governments.

The city of Austin sued the state over the law and are far behind in approving permits to make 5G a reality. 

Major companies held a 5G convention in Austin this week.

“If you want to be a smart city, 5G has to be part of that key ingredient,” said Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas.

He says 5G can be up to 10 times faster than service now. It all depends on how many small cell sites, or small cell towers, are posted throughout town.

“The closer you are to a cell site the better service you’re going to get, the faster service and the more capabilities that you’ll have,” said Pearson.

Lawmakers passed SB 1004 capping city fees and cutting city by city regulations. Before the law, Austin charged more than $1,500 per small cell site. After the law, the city could only collect $250.

The city of Austin is suing the state of Texas over the new law, accusing it of violating the supremacy clause by telling cities what to do with their rights of way.

Other cities filed suit as well calling the new law a gift of public resources to private companies. The Texas Municipal League says the taxpayers of Texas cities are losing about $750 million a year because those fees are now “capped.”

Now, companies say Austin created a pre-application step that’s stalling the process.

San Antonio has 66 applications since the law took effect; Houston approved 548, Dallas approved 288, Austin approved 2. 

Mandy Derr from Crown Castle, a wireless infrastructure company, told the State Senate Business and Commerce Committee that Austin created a lengthy pre-application process where they send the majority of the permit applications back to the company to rework the application.

More than 60 of the 80 applications have been returned to service providers. 

“We are keenly aware the number of approved applications is not where we’d like them to be at but we assure you we are working on it,” said Rondella Hawkins, director of the city of Austin’s Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Department.

She told lawmakers most of the permit requests are for downtown Austin, where crowded events got in the way.

“There’s a lot of growth, excavation, construction activity,” said Hawkins.

Houston senators didn’t buy it, because even with Hurricane Harvey that city has approved hundreds.

KXAN reached out to the city of Austin for more information on why Austin is so far behind other cities but have so far been denied an interview. 

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