Viewpoint: SXSW is almost here and Austin still waits for better WiFi

Posted originally in the Austin Business Journal on March 3, 2017

There’s no shortage of clichés about the speed contrast between fast-moving tech innovation and the slower pace of government. But when it comes to deploying critical infrastructure to meet the needs of Austin’s residents and visitors, we can’t let bureaucracy stop progress in its tracks. Austin is making major strides here thanks to visionary leadership from Mayor Adler but there is still a gap between the private sector’s desire to invest and the clear path forward.

Over the past year, I’ve traveled across the U.S., to Germany and to China. One thing these communities have in common is the fact that connectivity is a foundational element to any forward-thinking city’s plans to grow and thrive. For all of its well-deserved number one accolades, Austin continues to fall short on this front. I have compassion for all that a city has to do, much of which is invisible to citizens and residents. But I just can’t understand why there isn’t faster movement on adding infrastructure that is so critical to every aspect of how we work, live and play.

Nearly nine months ago — in advance of the Austin City Limits festival — I sounded an alarm over the need for Austin to take deliberate action related to our city’s wireless networks to prepare for the dense concentration of music lovers who were headed to our city.

Multiple wireless providers asked the city of Austin to develop a process that allowed for permitting and installation of “small cell” equipment that would provide additional network capacity and improve the wireless experience in crowded places like Zilker Park, downtown or on the University of Texas campus. But ACL came and went and those providers — and the millions of consumers they serve — are still waiting.

Now, South By Southwest is upon us and with it, another enviable opportunity to show the world why Austin tops the list of so many national rankings. But watchful observers of City Hall are frustrated with the realization that solutions that could dramatically improve the SXSW wireless experience likely aren’t going to happen in time for that opportunity either.

Slow network speeds are frustrating on any day. Add high-volume events like ACL or SXSW, when demands on wireless networks skyrocket, and slowdowns are downright maddening. Festival fans and visitors expect to be able to instantly share video, photos and information on social media, text and email. Staring powerlessly at your device as it is “thinking and thinking” feels like living in the dark ages. That doesn’t match with the Austin I know, which is fast-moving, entrepreneurial, creative and thrives on tech innovation.

So what can we do to decrease that gap? Wireless providers are ready to improve network capacity as soon as they get the green light on the local level. Sure they can roll out a few temporary fixes for festival-specific demand — but that comes with limits. Isn’t it time to have processes in place so that all providers can deliver an enhanced wireless experience to Austin all the time, not just during festivals? Let’s create a clear roadmap so that technology investment doesn’t remain at a standstill.

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

Viewpoint: SXSW is almost here and Austin still waits for better WiFi was originally published in Austin Startups on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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