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Collier: Austin needs action to shine during ACL Fest

Austin is at a crossroads. In the space where challenges, local policies and technology-based solutions intersect, the path forward is still foggy and the issues extend beyond ride-hailing. In just four months, tens of thousands of ACL festival-goers will arrive in Austin.

We welcome and appreciate these visitors and know we need to be prepared with plenty of transportation options. We must also recognize that a dense concentration of music lovers puts an enormous strain on our city’s wireless networks. On this front, we need for our city government to take deliberate action sooner rather than later, so that when the lights come up for ACL, Austin shines.

Inconsistency in city regulation has emerged as a prominent theme in news coverage of Austin’s ride-hailing industry after Uber and Lyft discontinued operations. The confusion that has resulted from this inconsistency is avoidable. Consumers and businesses are best served when rules are clear and don’t change midgame. Today, Austin’s city government has an opportunity to turn a new corner by embracing efficient processes and consistent regulations related to our city’s wireless infrastructure. The fact that ACL is coming creates some welcome urgency that we hope will bring some hustle to processes that could otherwise get bogged down in bureaucracy.

Specifically, multiple wireless providers have asked the city of Austin for permits to install “small cell” equipment that would improve the wireless experience in crowded places, whether in Zilker Park, areas of downtown or on the University of Texas campus. Small cell nodes can be installed in strategic places around town to so that wireless carriers can provide additional capacity.

If you’ve ever been in Central Austin on your mobile device, you get it — we need greater capacity. That reality is even more pronounced during an event like ACL, when demands on wireless networks skyrocket. Festival fans can attest that the only thing as frustrating as not being able to get a ride is not being able to share video, upload a photo or even send a simple text at the exact moment they would want to.

Wireless providers are ready to improve network capacity as soon as they get the local green light.

Providers like AT&T and Verizon often roll in temporary technology to offset festival-specific demand — but there are limits to those fixes. Better technology options exist, but it requires action from city government to establish the processes that providers need to follow to install small cell networks and deliver a better wireless experience to Austin. With no roadmap from the city, these technology investments — and solutions — are at a standstill.

Beefing up our wireless infrastructure should be a priority for Austin with or without big festivals. By 2020, 75 percent of mobile traffic will be video-based, meaning we’ll need much more wireless capacity on any given day in just four years. Smart city innovations like driverless cars and citywide sensors and advances in IoT — the internet of things — will drive wireless demand even higher. The city should act now to develop a streamlined process so that companies like ExteNet, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, who want to invest in Austin’s wireless capacity, are allowed to do just that.

Fall will be upon us in a flash, bringing with it throngs of enthusiastic visitors with high hopes for staying connected while they’re here. We are eager to see if Austin will act fast enough to be ready so our city can meet and even exceed those expectations. City government should grab this opportunity to shine and show the world that Austin embraces technologies that deliver what people want, need and expect in a city like ours. We’re known as a hotbed for innovation, entrepreneurship and for “thinking differently.” Let’s put those accolades to work.

Collier is principal at Intercambio Group, co-founder of Impact Hub Austin and a Zhi-Xing China Eisenhower Fellow.

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