U.S. Falling Behind in Smart City Deployments and Key 21st Century Infrastructure

Recent reporting shows the U.S. falling behind its neighbors in both smart city deployments and 5G network rollouts—the latter of which is slated to be the connective tissue of these future cities. The news has some experts on edge.

4 minute read

July 24, 2019, 2:00 PM PDT

By Robert Fischer @viewpoint_plaza

Smart Infrastructure

William Murphy / Flickr

Smart cities are either going to be the pinnacle of modern living or an Orwellian nightmare, but one thing seems for sure: the United States probably isn’t going to be the first to find out. 

Recent reporting underscores that the United States has fallen behind its neighbors in both smart city deployments and 5G network rollouts—the latter of which is slated to be the connective tissue of these future cities. The news has some experts on edge.

"China is developing 500 smart cities – almost half of the world’s total and more than 10 times North America’s figure," according to Graham Allison, the former director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, writing in a recent Axios article. In contrast, Allison continued, "the U.S. is developing 40 smart cities, less than 4% of the globe’s total."

The IDC tells a similar story in the recently released "Worldwide Semiannual Smart Cities Spending Guide." In the United States, only four cities (New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Chicago) are forecast to spend more than $300 million on smart city programs this year. Meanwhile, 11 cities in China will exceed the $300 million level in 2019.  

What about the race to build 5G networks, which have faster speeds, higher throughput, and are considered the backbone of the internet of things, smart cities, and even autonomous vehicles?

The Defense Innovation Board, a who’s-who of tech royalty that advises the Defense Department, met in April and published a critical report on the country's 5G effort, effectively confirming that Beijing has taken the lead.

"The country that owns 5G will own many of these innovations and set the standards for the rest of the world… [and] that country is currently not likely to be the United States," wrote the board, which includes former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and Walter Isaacson, a former chief executive of the Aspen Institute.

They have a point: according to patent analytics firm IPlytics [pdf], the United States is behind in the 5G patent race. The Chinese 5G market accounts for 34% of all 5G patents and technology; South Korea accounts for 25%.  Trailing behind those two countries are the United States and the European Union--both of which account for 14% of the 5G market.

I.P. ownership aside, the Unite States isn’t faring much better when it comes to building out 5G networks.

“If you count the launch of commercial service in any form, the U.S. is in front of China,” writes Elizabeth Woyke in a December article for the MIT Technology Review. Both countries have carriers that claim to have introduced early 5G services to a limited number of mobile customers.

On the other hand, Woyke continued, "if you think a country needs to roll out 5G to all its major cities in order to claim leadership, China looks likely to come out ahead."

China Tower, a company that builds infrastructure for the country’s mobile operators, has said it can cover China with 5G within three years of the government's allocation of spectrum.

"That points to national coverage by 2023," warns Woyke. Based on the tone of the Defense Innovation Board report, it doesn’t seem likely the United States can compete with that timeline.

AT&T, for example, plans to cover nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population with 5G by 2021; Verizon has similar plans. However, at this point, there is no clear path to full national coverage in the United States.

Complicating the rollout in the United States are the 80 cities and counties suing the FCC over new rules designed to accelerate the buildout of America's 5G infrastructure. The rules limit municipal authorities to charging $270 per cell site per year and also impose a "shot clock" limiting how long authorities can take to review installation requests.

The FCC argues that the new rules will free up $2 billion in capital for wireless providers to use in underserved areas like rural communities; cities are claiming the federal government has overstepped its bounds, undercutting local control of infrastructure.

Further slowing the 5G rollout in U.S. communities are health concerns. The service will require thousands of small cell antennas placed throughout cities, and critics have said that the radiation could increase the risk of cancer, fatigue, headaches and other effectsclaims that lack scientific support. 

The National Cancer Institute recently weighed in, summing up the field of concern by saying a "limited number of studies" showed evidence of a"“statistical association of cell phone use and brain tumor risks," but added that "most studies have found no association."

Long story short, it’s not looking so good for the United States right now. Underinvestment in smart city deploymentsrelative to other countriescoupled with a forecast of a long 5G rollout and low patent ownership is unnerving some experts.

Then again, there may be a silver lining to this tale. After all, in the event these cities do turn into Orwellian nightmares, who would want to be the first to find out anyway?

Robert Fischer

Robert Fischer is a Technology and Policy Advisor at Mandli Communications Inc. and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Mandli work’s with national, international, and regional authorities to advance smart city standards, policies, and best practices – especially as they relate to the future of mobility. In addition to working with city and state governments on smart city and emerging mobility deployments, Robert currently sits on several boards and public advisory committees.

stack of books

Planetizen’s Top Planning Books of 2023

The world is changing, and planning with it.

November 24, 2023 - Planetizen Team

Close-up of 'Red Line Subway Entry' sign with Braille below and train logo above text in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago Red Line Extension Could Transform the South Side

The city’s transit agency is undertaking its biggest expansion ever to finally bring rail to the South Side.

November 24, 2023 - The Architect's Newspaper

Diagram of visibility at urban intersection.

How ‘Daylighting’ Intersections Can Save Lives

Eliminating visual obstructions can make intersections safer for all users.

November 27, 2023 - Strong Towns

People walking on paved path in green city park with trees and tall city skyscrapers in background.

Green Spaces Benefit Neighborhoods—When Residents can Reach Them

A study comparing green space and walkability scores found that, without effective access to local parks, residents of greener neighborhoods don’t reap the health benefits.

December 3 - American Heart Association News

Aerial view of Eugene, Oregon at dusk with mountains in background.

Eugene Ends Parking Minimums

In a move that complies with a state law aimed at reducing transportation emissions, Eugene amended its parking rules to eliminate minimum requirements and set maximum parking lot sizes.

December 3 - NBC 16

White, blue, and red Chicago transit bus at an urban bus station with shelter.

Chicago Announces ‘Better Streets for Buses’ Plan

The plan establishes a ‘toolkit’ of improvements to make the bus riding experience more reliable, comfortable, and accessible.

December 3 - City of Chicago

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

"Rethinking Commuter Rail" podcast & Intercity Bus E-News

Chaddick Institute at DePaul University

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.