When he was appointed chairman of the agency that oversees the nation’s powerful telecommunications companies last year, Ajit Pai made clear that his No. 1 priority is to bring fast internet service to Americans who don’t have it, to close the digital divide.
Pai says one of the keys to making that happen is giving wireless carriers an easier way to deploy so-called small cells, a central component of 5G, the next generation of wireless communication. The cells, which may number in the millions once fully deployed nationwide, are a collection of equipment that include antennas, meters, power boxes and cables that will be attached to streetlights and utility poles throughout neighborhoods and business districts. The small cells promise to make wireless connections faster and support future applications such as driverless cars.
To speed the network’s deployment, Pai says the Federal Communications Commission must pass rules that limit local regulation of small-cell permitting, design, fees and other charges used to access cities’ public rights of way — barriers, Pai says, that are impeding the build-out of the new technology and closing the digital divide.
“If we do our job — if we make the deployment of wireless infrastructure easier, consistent with the public interest — then we can help close the digital divide in this country. This is especially true for low-income and minority communities,” Pai said last year.
But not everyone is buying Pai’s argument. Many local officials, engineers and wireless consultants contend that the changes Pai advocates won’t do anything to close the digital divide. What they will do, these critics charge, is increase profits for the wireless industry, which wants to cash in on a 5G market that is estimated to grow to $250 billion in annual service revenue in seven years.