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AT&T picks Indy for '5G Evolution' market

February 3, 2017

AT&T announced this week that Indianapolis is one of two cities where the telecom giant will start building its 5G wireless network.

At an event in San Francisco Wednesday, the company said Indianapolis and Austin, Texas, will be its first "5G Evolution Markets." The company said the network will be capable of transmitting data at peak speeds of 400 megabits per second, which is at least 20 times faster than the 4G LTE speeds common today.

While those higher speeds aren't quite "true 5G" (more than 1,000 megabits per second), AT&T said "some areas" might be capable of true 5G speeds this year. Overall, the move lays the groundwork for a network that allows seamless use of a variety of emerging technologies, including one for web-connected devices commonly known as the "internet of things."

"It's terrific news for Indianapolis to be first on the road to 5G," Bret Swanson, president of Zionsville-based advisory firm Entropy Economics LLC, said in an email. "5G will not only supply the bandwidth for the continuing floods of mobile video, it will also be the foundation of the Internet of Things and, eventually, autonomous vehicles."

AT&T did not disclose how much it will invest to upgrade service in Indianapolis. It also did not provide a timeline for the rollout or say why Indianapolis was chosen. Requests for interviews were declined, but the company did provide a prepared statement from AT&T Indiana President Bill Soards.

"Indiana has always been a national leader in embracing innovation and technology advancements. I'm thrilled AT&T has recognized that and plans one of our first 5G Evolution Markets in Indianapolis this year," Soards said.

Other local technology observers praised the decision, saying it signals confidence in Indianapolis and bodes well for growth of the technology sector here. 

"It's just in two places—Austin and Indianapolis," said Mark Lawrance, vice president of engagement and innovation at the Indiana Chamber.

"To me, that speaks volumes about where our community is in terms of technology."

Lawrance, who tracks tech-related bills in the Indiana Legislature, said his understanding is that AT&T's investment is related to Senate Bill 213, which would make it easier for telecom companies to deploy "small cell" devices. These are smaller than cell phone towers, more powerful than wireless routers, and seen as vital to 5G technology.

Among other things, the measure—which was amended in the Senate Rules and Legislative Procedure Committee Jan. 26 and sent to the Senate Utilities Committee—excuses telecom firms from having to obtain permits to replace certain wireless equipment. It also limits how much communities could charge for permits to install small cell equipment. 

"The AT&T investment will happen with or without that legislation," Lawrance said. "But what's important about that legislation is that it lays out a way for [such investments] to be expedited in other areas of the state."

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