News Story

New 5G Internet Faster, Cheaper – And Vulnerable To Local Shakedowns

Bills that passed the Michigan Senate will preempt local bottlenecks, if the state House goes along

LANSING – Whether Michigan residents will benefit from the latest generation of internet and cell phone delivery platforms is, at least in part, in the hands of the state House of Representatives. That is the view of those who support two Senate-passed bills dealing with the issue that are now pending in the House.

The technology is called 5G, and it delivers video, data and voice signals through networks of hundreds or thousands of small transmitters with limited range, often hung on electric, light or telephone poles. The small transmitters need to be installed in large numbers, which makes the technology vulnerable to excessive permit, zoning and fee mandates imposed by local governments.

Earlier this year, the Michigan Senate passed a pair of bills that would establish a single state regulatory regime and limit how much local governments can charge or restrict these networks.

In Lansing this week, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy convened a panel of experts on technology and telecommunications law to discuss the opportunities and challenges represented by 5G service.

First up was Michael O’Reilly, appointed to the Federal Communications Commission in 2013. He described how the increases in speed and capacity offered by 5G networks will transform the telecommunications industry, forcing companies to rethink how they charge customers for service.

Brent Skorup, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said faster 5G service will enable useful new services and industries that don’t currently exist. He gave the example of remote surgery, which exists but is not widespread. An example would be a doctor in Washington, D.C. who could remotely control a surgical robot and perform operations in rural Washington state.

Rounding out the panel was Theodore Bolema, an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center and senior fellow with The Free State Foundation. According to Bolema, overcoming the obstacles to rolling out 5G service requires the state legislature to standardize local fee and permit processes, essentially preempting local regulations that unreasonably hold up the installation of many small-cell transmitters.

The first four generations of internet service often involved federal telecommunications law and matters related to the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. But according to Skorup, the dispersed nature of fifth generation networks – 5G – makes them more dependent on favorable state and local policies.

Panel members agreed that 5G networks will augment, not replace, existing networks, expanding and improving cell phone, internet, and other telecommunications services.

So while 5G technology offers much greater speed and bandwidth, it also presents numerous challenges.

Derek Melot, director of communications and marketing at the Michigan Association of Counties, said his organization’s government affairs team advised they take a neutral position on Senate Bill 637 when it was brought up in the Senate Energy and Technology Committee. This is the Senate-passed bill that would establish a single statewide regulatory system.

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A replay of the event: