Guest column

Houston primed for opportunity within the tech inversion caused by the pandemic

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

For has long as I can remember, I had to live near water. That's why I moved to Houston. Recently, new neighbors moved next door from the downtown Galleria area. They loved it there until coronavirus turned shopping habits into stay-at-home habits. The experience led them to recognize they could do just fine without the Galleria-area routine, pivoting instead to a maritime lifestyle.

Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first. We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered.

This technology inversion fundamentally found its way to the individual consumer and transformed entire industries. Houston businesses are responding to a rare COVID-19-induced disruption. Inversions are rare, but when they occur, opportunity follows.

Large infrastructure challenges are normally led by bureaucratic funding processes that result in productized solutions. Hurricane Harvey was a wake-up call to take decisive action to protect decades of private and public investment against future flood events. It was an analogue to removing the board with the nail in it from the driveway to avoid endless tire repairs.

Now, Houston's resilience infrastructure is going through a Hurricane Harvey-induced inversion. The fundamental approach to water management is experiencing a historic reversal which focuses on need rather than a response cycle. Largely dependent on surface run-off systems, Houston experienced a river running through it during Hurricane Harvey. In response, studies and projects are underway to consider a major underground storm drainage system. Water management is fundamentally changing to move stormwater from above ground to below grade, while domestic water is moving away from underground sources to surface supplies, such as lakes. These programs reduce threats to downtown, allowing urbanism and businesses to flourish, simply by addressing a human need in lieu of building another drainage product.

Fortunately for the Houston economy, pre-COVID, quasi-inversion programs already in place to address mobility needs, such as the $7.5 billion METRONext program and $4.8 billion for flood control essentials, are injecting billions of dollars into the local economy. At the federal level, future stimulus funding designed to address infrastructure needs and the economic impact of Coronavirus are likely to follow next year. Consequently, the current Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 inversion could position Houston to rebound from a time of trial reimagining what a next generation city in the modern age should look like.

Graphic courtesy of AECOM

In fact, infrastructure programs have a long history of creating sustainable jobs and transforming cities. Did you know the River Walk in San Antonio, a downtown centerpiece that thrives today and contributes to thousands of job opportunities, was a construction project born during the Great Depression to address a disastrous flood occurring in the early 1920s? San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman was elected to address a need to save lives and reimagine San Antonio's downtown. The city was altered forever by creating a flood resilience infrastructure that also transformed its city center into a civic gathering place that made San Antonio one of the largest destination cities in Texas.

While technology inversions are occurring more often than before, they are still rare, and each one is very important. Infrastructure inversions that transform cites are even more exceptional. In a COVID-19-induced inversion period, the possibilities are limitless, and the time is now. With programs underway and potential stimulus funding to support additional investment to address city needs, Houston is positioned for something amazing.

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Tony Loyd is based in Houston and vice president at AECOM.

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Building Houston

 
 

5G could be taking over Texas — and Houston is leading the way. Photo via Getty Images

Based on one key measure, Houston sits at the forefront of a telecom revolution that could spark a regional economic impact of more than $30 billion.

Data published recently by the Texas Comptroller's Office points out that as of last November and December, Houston led all cities in Texas for the number of so-called "small cells." Small cells are a key component in the rollout of ultra-high-speed 5G wireless communication throughout the Houston area and the country.

As the Texas Comptroller's Office explains, small cells are low-powered antennas that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. They're usually installed on existing public infrastructure like street signs or utility poles, instead of the big communication towers that transmit 4G signals.

The comptroller's tally shows Houston had approved 5,455 small-cell sites as of the November-December timeframe. That dwarfs the total number of sites (1,948) for the state's second-ranked city, Dallas.

"Houston is in the vanguard of small cell permitting in Texas, and not just because it's the state's largest city; advocates have lauded its proactive approach to 5G. Other cities, particularly smaller ones, are lagging well behind," the Comptroller's Office notes.

According to CTIA, a trade group for the wireless communications industry, 5G holds the promise to deliver an economic impact of $30.3 billion in the Houston area and create 93,700 jobs. The group says industries such as health care, energy, transportation, e-commerce, and logistics stand to benefit from the emergence of 5G.

"Maintaining world-class communications infrastructure is a requirement for success in a rapidly changing global economy. Small cells and fiber technology are the key foundational components for network densification and robust 5G. Cities like Houston that have embraced the need for this infrastructure will see the benefits of 5G faster than others," Mandy Derr, government affairs director at Houston-based communications infrastructure REIT Crown Castle International Corp. and a member of the Texas 5G Alliance, tells InnovationMap.

Derr says leaders in Houston have embraced the importance of small-cell technology through "reasonable and effective" regulations and processes aimed at boosting 5G capabilities. Three major providers of wireless service — AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon — offer 5G to customers in the Houston area.

"More small cells and fiber provide greater and faster access for the masses, enabling the connectivity that is essential to our businesses today — whether it's accepting payments on a mobile card reader, completing a sale on the go, or reliably reaching consumers where they are," Derr says.

In a blog post, Netrality Data Centers, which operates a data center in Houston, proclaims that Houston is shaping up to be a hub of 5G innovation.

"Houston has always been on the frontline," Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a 5G roundtable discussion in 2019. "It is who we are. It is in our DNA. We are a leading city. We didn't wait for somebody else to go to the moon. Or to be the energy capital of the world. Or the largest medical center in the world. But you don't stay at the front if you don't continue to lead."

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