Wednesday, May 22, 2024

With an outsized share of intellectual capital, innovation has always thrived in Cambridge. And much of that innovation has capitalized on a strong foundation of communications infrastructure, dating as far back to 1971 with the invention of computer-to-computer email. Now we have email in the palms of our hands and rely on smartphones for daily communication. As a result, mobile network operators are handling massive amounts of new traffic. Ericsson reported that mobile network data traffic grew 40 percent between 2021 and 2022. Today, we have to think of technologies and infrastructure such as small cells and fiber, which are critical for transmitting data, in the same way we used to think of telephone poles and power lines – as essential to modern life.

Building out the infrastructure that will support the technologies of tomorrow will serve as an important economic catalyst for communities large and small across the state. The buildout of 5G – the next generation of wireless coverage – will generate more than $36 billion in gross domestic product and 93,000 jobs in Greater Cambridge over the next 10 years. We will see 5G help transform many of the industries that make Cambridge a hub for innovation, from health care and education to transportation and manufacturing.

For instance, 5G will facilitate innovation for Cambridge’s world-class health care providers. In the not-too-distant future, innovations such as remote surgery will provide patients with access to top surgeons regardless of their location; at-home EKG machines will share heart readings instantly with cardiologists; and videoconferencing will connect emergency room staff and EMTs en route to hospitals in real time. 5G also expands access to health care by improving telehealth, which promotes equity by reaching patients where they are.

Wireless access is also critical for digital equity. According to the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of Americans now access the Internet mostly using a smartphone, and low-income families are more likely to rely exclusively on their smartphones to get online. 5G allows families that are wireless-only to better participate in the digital economy. And 5G fixed wireless is opening opportunities for home broadband.

As communities across the country look to reduce their environmental impact, 5G can help Cambridge reach the goals put forth in its Net Zero Action Plan by enabling an ecosystem of connected objects – cars, machines, sensors and meters that result in energy savings and less air pollution.

These are just a few of the improvements 5G networks will deliver for communities. Cambridge needs policies that will maximize the potential benefits of connectivity. Unfortunately, the city’s rules – particularly regarding the size of the infrastructure required to provide 5G services – are outdated and effectively prohibit the installation of 5G.

Communities across the region are unlocking the benefits of wireless broadband by adopting Federal Communications Commission guidelines regarding equipment cabinet and shroud size. These guidelines allow up to 28 cubic feet in volume, which allows for flexibility as wireless technology evolves and adaptability to preserve the character of historic areas. These standards have worked well for cities including Somerville, Chelsea, Everett and Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Adopting these guidelines would also allow multiple carriers to collocate on a shared pole, thereby reducing the overall footprint of communications infrastructure, reducing construction, improving environmental sustainability and accelerating the rollout of 5G.

Innovation and growth can stagnate with outdated infrastructure. Instead of allowing outdated policies to leave us in the digital past, local authorities such as Cambridge’s Pole and Conduit Commission should update its small-cell guidelines to enable the communication networks it needs now and in the future.

David Maher is president and chief executive of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and a former city councillor and mayor.