Over the centuries, technologically innovative public infrastructure has been a hallmark of the world’s great cities. Tourists still marvel at Rome’s aqueducts and hold hands under Paris’ streetlights. The next great innovation will come in networking technology, in which San Diego is well-positioned to gain world renown as a global leader. To get there, its leaders need to ready the city now for a 5G wireless broadband network.

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For decades, San Diego has worked to strategically position itself technologically. Since the 1980s, it has revitalized its infrastructure with this in mind, and the effort is paying off. Today, it has one of the highest adoption rates of electric vehicles in the world, for example.

The city’s efforts to stay on the cutting edge of were nationally recognized when Forbes rated San Diego as the best place to launch a startup and the second-most inventive city in the world. National Geographic featured San Diego in 2015 as a “smart city” to watch.

The type of leadership has brought San Diego to an important point in its history. Already recognized as a city at the forefront of the “smart city” revolution, it now has the opportunity to become a world-famous innovator in municipal infrastructure. Being the first city to deploy a working 5G wireless broadband network would do more than gain San Diego worldwide fame. It would attract entrepreneurs, investors and techies from all over the world, vaulting San Diego’s economy into the future well ahead of every other city.

At a recent forum on the policy implications of smart city technology, several speakers discussed why building a next-generation 5G wireless broadband network is crucial if San Diego wants to become a leading smart city. Successful smart cities will require vastly larger amounts of wireless capacity. Everything from autonomous cars, real-time monitoring of infrastructure, energy and health needs and other data-intensive innovations like virtual reality require the speeds of 5G, which are up to 100 times faster than current 4G LTE speeds.

A 5G network would support real-time downloads of incredible amounts of data, making 4G look like the telegraph by comparison. The 5G network will require vastly larger amounts of spectrum; even more than what the Federal Communications Commission made available in its historic vote in July. It will also need a large expansion of physical infrastructure, including additional cell towers and millions of small cells.

These cells would be everywhere; on every street corner, in individual rooms in homes and buildings, and so forth. And in many cases, they would be as small as a smoke detector.

Ensuring that this robust physical infrastructure is properly put in place will require public and private entities working together in close collaboration. San Diego has leadership that gets this. While other cities’ politicians argue and debate, San Diego can begin this critical buildout.

A 5G network will have to be built by the private sector, but it cannot be built until political leaders make room for it by making necessary changes to zoning and land-use regulations, for example. San Diego has taken a huge step ahead of other cities in this regard, but more steps are needed.

When 5G networks do arrive, the cities that get them first will hold a huge competitive advantage over their rivals. Imagine the benefits of being able to enjoy wireless broadband speeds 100 times faster in San Diego than in Los Angeles or Silicon Valley or London or Shanghai.

San Diego has begun preparing some of its existing infrastructure for 5G compatibility. For example, the city is in the process of planning how best to deploy electronic sensors routed to central computer networks to better manage its water and traffic systems. But if the zoning, planning and other groundwork lags behind, the city risks being beaten by others that act more quickly.

San Diego is fortunate that it has leaders who realize that becoming an early adopter of smart city technology will give their city a competitive advantage nationally and even globally. The public should support these efforts. The early adoption of 5G wireless broadband would benefit everyone by creating rapid advances in economic opportunity and quality of life. If San Diego doesn’t create this opportunity for itself, another city will.

Chelsea Collier is the founder of Digi.City, a national platform for advancing Smart City technology and policy.

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