By Mike Montgomery
There is no denying that we live in a world dominated by “connected” technology. Since the internet was introduced to the public in 1990, the U.S. has been riding an unprecedented wave of innovation powered by the web.
It seems like a crazy concept at this point, but many Americans still remember using an encyclopedia instead of Google, plotting a road trip on a paper map instead of asking a virtual assistant for directions, and physically going to the bank to make a deposit instead of taking a picture on an app.
And while many of us still remember these “hardships” (wink, wink), explaining the “pre-internet” world to most millennials and Generation Z youths is equivalent to prior generations trying to explain to Baby Boomers what life was like before electricity – simply unfathomable.
Millennials are going to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation in 2019 – officially making the millennial generation the driving force behind the US economy. This means that moving forward, the majority of the US population will have largely grown up in a world where connectivity has been an essential utility. The same way Baby Boomers have always expected the lights to come on when they flipped the switch, millennials and all future generations will expect to connect when they tap the screen of their smartphone.
The Pew Research Center says 100% of Americans age 18 to 29 own a cellphone, with 94% owning a smartphone. The numbers are nearly as impressive for those ages 30 to 49, where 98% own a mobile phone and 89% of those are smartphones. Further, nearly 30% of 18- to 29-year-olds have no internet connection at home and solely rely on mobile for internet access.
The frequency of use is also mind boggling. A separate survey from Pew found that 89% of smartphone users go online daily, while nearly four out of 10 18- to 29-year-olds go online “almost constantly.”
This insatiable appetite for connectivity has led to a 238% increase in data consumption over the last two years alone. Further, Cisco predicts that global mobile data traffic will increase to 49 exabytes per month by 2021 – a seven-fold increase from the average in 2016.
While the increased use of connected technology has certainly made our society more efficient, we are at a tipping point where our networks and infrastructure must be modernized to deal with the massive demand for data.
In short, our networks must be upgraded from 4G to 5G. 5G will be 20 times faster, handle 100 times the capacity and decrease latency 10 times compared to 4G. This increase in speed and efficiency will not only create a better smartphone experience, but also will ultimately allow 5G to enable innovations such as autonomous vehicles, drone delivery and more.
However, before 5G can become a reality, we must lay the foundation. 5G will require much denser networks and more connection points. Robust deployment of next-generation infrastructure known as small cells underpinned by fiber optic cable is a requirement for 5G.
In addition to serving as the foundation for 5G, small cells will help immediately relieve network congestion today, improving users’ immediate 4G experience. You may not know it, but if you have been to a major sporting event, rally, or concert and noticed your phone was still working despite the large crowd, you likely have already reaped the benefits of a small cell densification.
Despite being the adoption leader in mobile technology, the U.S. ranked 43rd in the world for mobile download speeds in the first half of 2018 – a big reason being slow small cell deployment.
Why is infrastructure deployment moving slower in the U.S.? As most things do, it starts at the local level. Far too many municipalities are actively impeding small deployment in communities with long wait times for permits, unreasonable fees and convoluted regulations.
The Federal Communications Commission took steps to speed up the permitting process earlier this year by streamlining the federal review process for installing small cells and voted again earlier this month to make additional spectrum available to support 5G networks.
But we need more help.
The FCC should move more aggressively to eliminate regulatory barriers to 5G and localities should do all they can to encourage 5G deployment by establishing a transparent and simple process for small cell deployment.
Getting 5G up and running as fast as possible and ensuring we have the best available 4G access in the interim is vital to the continued success of our country. The wireless industry alone contributes around $475 billion annually to the total U.S. GDP and supports 4.7 million jobs.
As our country continues to evolve and mobile-centric generations become the backbone of society, wireless connectivity will continue to grow in importance. As such, we must do all we can today to ensure we have the best available networks now and in the future.