By Harry C. Alford
With reports showing that roughly 80% of consumers consider mobile services indispensable, minority-owned small businesses will require access to resources that will allow them to compete in our fast-paced modern economy. The next generation of wireless, known as fifth-generation or “5G,” will mark another leap forward to redefine the U.S. economy as we know it.
It appears that a lot of work must be done to ensure 5G is available for consumers and small businesses to use. Recent research by Accenture shows that 5G will require the deployment of more infrastructure to accommodate the dramatic increases in mobile usage by our citizens. Cell towers have traditionally been the main means for wireless coverage. 5G will require increased backup help from “small cells,” in addition to the traditional towers. Small cells can be integrated into existing community infrastructure like street lamps or utility poles. In the same way that secondary store locations can offer backup capacity when one store location becomes overwhelmed by customer orders, small cells can tag team wireless traffic to ensure that our small businesses can run their operations without delay.
The problem is that it can take anywhere from 18 months to two years just to approve a single small cell. Most areas today have laws on the books that only see wireless as it used to operate, unfairly treating small cells like towers. In addition to this problem, the approval cycle for permission to build a single small cell is unacceptable. Depending on the location, a planning commission, zoning commission, county council, or other government reviews may delay deployment, a process that physically takes a worker only a couple of hours to install.
Thankfully, federal legislators have also joined the fight to deploy next-generation wireless to our citizens who demand it. U.S. Senators Thune and Schatz have distributed a discussion draft to complement legislative small cell streamlining advancements that have occurred in at least 13 States. This proposed bill is encouraging for most of Black business owners who increasingly rely on mobile to advertise their goods and services, sell them online, communicate with new customer bases, and conduct business transactions.
The Thune-Schatz draft is an effort to get next-generation networks to individuals and community small businesses demanding them. First, the bill prevents unnecessary access restrictions to poles, rights-of-way, or other public facilities. It also suggests reasonable timing for government decisions on buildout requests and prevents states and localities from creating unnecessary barriers.
At the same time, the draft preserves the authority of localities and state governments to charge service providers fees to access public properties needed to deploy wireless in communities. Fees would have to be fair, reasonable, competitively, and technologically neutral, and disclosed to the public. Localities and state governments would also keep their authority over zoning, land use, and public infrastructure.
Forward-thinking elected leaders of our minority communities have already recognized a disconnect where some governments unnecessarily delay access to the mobile services demanded by the citizens and small businesses they are charged with serving. Organizations like the African American Mayors Association and the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative (NOBEL) Women have issued resolutions supporting streamlined deployment of next-generation networks so that their communities can access them.
Last year, Americans spent a majority of the time they spend awake using mobile devices. About nine out of ten small business owners say that they rely on wireless, with 87% pointing to a notable increase in the importance of wireless as compared to five years ago. Brick-and-mortar businesses, even Main Street mom and pop shops, are increasingly using wireless to expand the reach of the goods and services they offer.
Many potential customers begin their purchasing decisions on a smartphone. Our minority businesses need to be able to easily meet customers in the mobile digital marketplace as well as the physical one. Because people today are more mobile than ever, mobile connectivity is an essential resource for our small businesses.
The wireless industry states that 5G is expected to offer mobile speeds that are up to 100 times faster and support 100 times more devices. What does this mean for minority-owned businesses? More customers connecting with our entrepreneurs.
Our communities deserve a turning point against the digital divide. The National Black Chamber of Commerce commends Senators Thune and Schatz for taking a step in the right direction for minority-owned businesses.
Harry C. Alford is president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Continue the conversation on Twitter @Nationalbcc