5G is Officially in San Francisco and San Jose. But Who Really Has Access?

Workers rebuild a cellular tower with 5G equipment. San Jose's deal with mobile companies to launch 5G networks ensures that the new technology will be available to all of its residents.  (George Frey/Getty Images)

If you live in San Francisco or San Jose, congratulations, you are now technologically ahead compared to most other cities. AT&T announced that its 5G network went live in those two cities on Friday, making it the first mobile carrier to bring the service to widespread parts of the Bay Area.

There is a lot of hype surrounding 5G. It’s been touted as a game changer cellular network with “blazing fast” speeds that can be up to ten times faster than the 4G LTE network most use now. Eventually, it will mean crystal clear video streaming or autonomous vehicles that have quicker reaction times than humans.

But as this quicker and newer technology is rolled out in more areas, some communities could be left behind.

“The number of [5G] deployment and adoption in urban high-income areas is significantly outpacing those in low-income and rural areas,” said Brandie Nonnecke, founding director of UC Berkeley-based tech research institute CITRIS Policy Lab. “While 5G networks hold great potential, we have to think about actionable steps that cities should be taking to ensure the deployment of these new networks are inclusive of everyone in the community.”

This attitude especially rings true for San Jose, where 95,000 people already have no access to the internet, according to a recent city study. But over the past year, the city has been working to address this issue of equitable technology access. Its approach is unique among other cities working to roll out 5G, according to San Jose's Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham.

The city's plan works by charging for permits on utility poles that mobile companies need to use as they race to build out their 5G networks. Then the city takes this revenue and reorganizes staff to permit these companies faster. The rest of the money goes towards the city's Digital Inclusion Fund, which was launched in February 2019 and aims to connect 50,000 households to the web and equip residents with digital literacy skills over the next ten years.

San Jose currently has tiered pricing for these treasured utility poles and other public sites, charging telecoms anywhere from $750 to $2500 a site based on how much of the city a carrier wants to serve.

Santosham said companies essentially get a discount for choosing to serve the entire city.

“We looked at where in the city carriers were going to build and we tried to balance that across the city to the degree that we could influence it,” said Santosham. “Overall, the deployment that we’ll see in San Jose is going to be pretty equitable across the whole city.”

So far, San Jose has permitted 943 sites and expects about 3,000 more to be developed over the next several years. Santosham said she expects the city to have the largest 5G deployment in the country.

An exact number of how much the city has made off the build out to date is not yet available, but Santosham said San Jose expects up to $24 million to be raised over the next decade for the Digital Inclusion Fund.

Although the city has come up with a novel way to make sure all of its residents can ride the 5G wave, the Federal Communications Commission is not keen on seeing other communities do the same thing. It wants to keep 5G construction costs as low as possible for telecoms to help ensure a swift move to the new technology.

The Rise of 5G
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Last fall, the FCC capped the amount cities can charge for the use of public infrastructure to $270 and imposed a “shot clock” of up to 90 days for cities to issue permits. Three mobile companies are honoring a prior agreement with San Jose that allows the city to still charge more than the FCC's mandate.

The FCC rules prompted a lawsuit from San Jose and a group of close to 100 other cities that allege the order limits cities’ local control. The case is currently awaiting a hearing date in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Still, Brandie Nonnecke at CITRIS Policy Lab said other cities should look to San Jose as a model.

“This digital inclusion fund is an excellent effort to better ensure that when we're moving to these new generations of technologies, we're doing so in a way that ensures every member of your city is able to have access,” said Nonnecke.

And as for access to AT&T's faster network that launched this week, you really can only get it if you have a fancy, new 5G compatible phone.

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