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Viewpoint: Improving Charleston’s wireless infrastructure remains critical

Innovation
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Wireless technology has come to play an exponentially more integral role in our daily lives. Our connected devices now allow us to stream videos, map real-time traffic conditions, remotely monitor our homes and stay in touch with our loved ones.  

In the U.S., nearly 95% of adults own a cellphone and, according to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, over half of all American households are wireless only. 

With more than 80% of 911 calls now originating from wireless devices, access to reliable mobile technology is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for citizens and first responders.

Our reliance on connected devices will continue to grow and expand into new areas, largely because of the so-called internet of things. 

Intel estimates that the average number of connected devices per household will rise from 10 to 50 by 2020. Each generation of wireless technology has delivered great leaps in speed and functionality. Initially, 1G brought us our very first cellphones; 2G let us text for the first time; 3G brought us online; and 4G delivered the speeds that we all enjoy today. Next, 5G will handle 1,000 times more traffic and be 10 times faster.

This coming next-generation network will lay the foundation and enable the mass adoption of innovations such as virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, the internet of things and countless other future smart city applications. 

These capabilities are coming much sooner than you may think — traffic congestion relief through more efficient autonomous vehicle lanes isn’t a sci-fi pipe dream, but something our generation will see in action. 

With the amount of increased data traffic from all these additional connected devices currently pushing networks to their limits, how are we to prepare our wireless infrastructure to support the buildout of 5G?

The technological advancement that will make that possible — to accommodate our current growing needs and the coming of 5G — is the deployment of new wireless “small cell” networks. 

Small cell networks boost wireless coverage and network capacity by using a series of small “nodes,” connected by fiber, that work together with cell towers that are already in service. 

Small cells — as the name implies — are smaller and more discreet than traditional towers. 

Typically deployed on existing infrastructure like streetlights and utility poles, they can be designed to stealthily blend in to these existing structures so as to not disrupt the aesthetics of an area.  

Wireless carriers are currently deploying small cell nodes in cities throughout the country — including Columbia, North Charleston and other S.C. cities. 

While they will serve as the backbone for 5G, they are currently needed to help meet the increasing demands already being placed on existing networks.

This is a problem Charleston will soon be experiencing without the network support of small cell nodes.

This is especially true for downtown Charleston, where space on the peninsula is limited, yet the number of people — and connected devices — is increasing as a result of our growing visitor base, the arrival of cruise ships, the seasonal influx of students and other related activity. 
We must be forward-thinking in our approach to connectivity because the future prosperity and economic competitiveness of Charleston depends on it.

This generation of state and local leaders needs to help ensure our future economic prosperity by working together in concert with the builders of wireless networks to streamline and expedite the deployment of next-generation infrastructure that will serve as the backbone for 5G networks.

Ernest Andrade is the executive director and founder of the Charleston Digital Corridor.

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