By Kyle Wingfield
The head of the FCC, an NBA Hall of Famer and some Georgia legislators walk into a room, and – well, actually, this isn’t a joke. It’s what happened just the other day in Atlanta.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, visited this past week to promote greater broadband access. Georgia was a natural stop given our current debate on the topic (more on that in a moment). Less expected, at least to this observer, was the involvement of perhaps the greatest Atlanta Hawk, Dominique Wilkins.
It turns out that Wilkins has been in the technology business for a couple of years, having launched Two One Technology in 2017. “It’s an evolving space,” Wilkins said at the event hosted by the Georgia Chamber. “If you look around sports, all these (athletes) … are investing in technology. It’s the way of the world.”
“Two One” stands for 21, which was Wilkins’ jersey number with the Hawks, for those who aren’t basketball fans or weren’t alive when he was winning slam dunk contests in the mid-1980s and early ‘90s.
The latter group is actually responsible for the unlikely pairing of Pai and Wilkins. Pai recalled reading tweets from people with short memories about who was the best dunker of all time, and sending them clips of the Hawk nicknamed “The Human Highlight Film.” Wilkins reached out, and the two struck up a friendship that ultimately brought them together for the event in Atlanta.
See? Social media can be good for something, after all.
Then again, social media sites are also where Pai still catches grief from misguided souls who thought the move he led to reverse the FCC’s short-lived “net neutrality” policy was going to kill the internet, or something. Months later, not only is the internet still going strong but investment in new technology is growing rapidly.
Fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G, will increase speeds tenfold and dramatically cut lag times, Pai said. And, he projected, 5G will create three million jobs, some $275 billion in private investment, and drive economic growth of $500 billion.
“Three-G to 4G was a big change, but 4G to 5G is going to be transformative,” Pai said, “because it’s going to enable all sorts of technology we’re only scratching the surface of.” Among the advancements he cited were smart transportation networks for autonomous vehicles and remote health monitoring.
Key to taking advantage of 5G, Pai said, is reducing regulations. Georgia’s legislators are taking a swing at that this year: Both House Bill 184 and Senate Bill 66 would streamline and shorten the approval processes and cap the fees local governments can impose on wireless providers.
“All of these reforms sound pretty arcane, and they are,” Pai said. “But studies show they can reduce the cost of deployment (of infrastructure nationwide) by billions of dollars.”
Another problem both Georgia’s legislators and Pai’s FCC are trying to solve is improving internet access in rural areas and poor neighborhoods in cities.
“There are some parts of the country with sparse populations and low incomes where the incentives to build (infrastructure) for the private sector just don’t exist,” Pai said. He added that the high school he attended in rural Kansas “still doesn’t have the internet access you see in more affluent areas.”
Georgia’s lawmakers have been working on rural access for a few years. The latest effort is an attempt to balance the interests of electric co-ops around the state, which want to offer broadband service, and their potential competitors, who have to negotiate terms to run their cable and fiber on the co-ops’ utility poles. Unlike the 5G permitting bills, the prospects for these measures are still unclear.
It’s important for lawmakers to free the market from overregulation and anticompetitive practices alike. With that accomplished, Georgians who lack adequate access can benefit from private investment and innovation and compete in the digital economy. Maybe they’ll even be able to stream Dominique Wilkins’ highlights.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Contact him through the group’s website at www.georgiapolicy.org.