Bill Bissett: 5G revolution could be game-changer for region

October 2, 2018 GMT

Among the goals of the West Virginia Chamber’s recent business summit was to inform and educate each other — elected officials, business leaders, nonprofit advocates, educators and others — about the many benefits of our great state and future opportunities that are possible when we work together to achieve positive outcomes.

During the summit, I led a panel discussion about the importance of broadband — including mobile broadband — to all West Virginians today and in the future. We heard from national experts on wireless broadband, legislators and other state officials. The message was clear: Smart public policies, including targeted funding and more modern state rules, will help us leverage and attract private sector investment to strengthen and expand broadband connectivity across the Mountain State.

The wireless penetration rate in West Virginia is higher than 100 percent. Put another way, there are more wireless connections than people. And, around half of West Virginia residents live in wireless-only households.

As we all know, West Virginians are using their devices for more than just talking and texting. They’re connecting with healthcare professionals across the state or across the country, using for teaching and learning and even watching their favorite shows or games on mobile devices. This increased usage — combined with the emerging technologies such as 5G, which is expected to bring connections that are as much as 100 times faster than those available today — require the installation of newer technology called small cells.

5G wireless is not simply an improved version of what we have now, but is a quantum leap into the future of wireless broadband. This technology will make possible smart city applications, virtual reality-based job training, fully functional autonomous vehicles and many other advancements that will change the way we live. The equipment that will make this possible can be added to utility poles, buildings and other structures, and will boost wireless coverage and capacity today, plus lay the foundation for future exponential growth. Government rules, however, have not kept up with changes in technology. Local communities often follow the process that’s in place for approving large cell towers. For this reason, we need new rules for this new technology.

Last session, the West Virginia House of Delegates approved, by a 97-2 margin, a measure that would have modernized the rules for installing small cells by streamlining the application process, addressing fee structures and setting deadlines for approval of applications. The 2018 legislative session concluded before the Senate could tackle this vitally important issue.

As we look ahead to the next legislative session, we need to move quickly on setting state policies to bring more investment in broadband to Huntington and to our state. Doing so will create jobs, boost the economy, inspire innovation and help us keep and attract businesses to West Virginia.

A study by Accenture determined that small cell deployments that lay the foundation for future technologies like 5G will bring approximately $275 billion in investment nationwide during the next seven years, creating jobs and pumping even more opportunity into the U.S. economy. In my hometown of Huntington, the study estimates that 5G may create more than 400 jobs and increase GDP by at least $73 million. That will be a much-needed game changer for Huntington and West Virginia that we should all support.

Bill Bissett is the president and chief executive officer of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 550 businesses in Cabell and Wayne Counties.