Cities prepare for 5G small-cell wireless, amid worries about local control and tight timelines

Wireless companies are already installing 5G capable equipment on existing cell phone towers like this one on Main Street hill in Edmonds. (Photo by Larry Vogel

The move to 5G wireless is upon us, and it’s happening fast.  

The cities of Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace find themselves feverishly drafting new regulations and codes addressing where to locate and attach the new 5G hardware, how much to charge the big wireless companies to do this, and neighborhood concerns about everything from visual pollution to lowering property values to health effects, including links to cancer.

To help this move forward quickly, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has stepped into the fray, voting to approve new rules aimed at speeding up the deployment of small cells and other 5G network equipment.  According to many observers, these rules heavily favor wireless providers by severely limiting the role of local governments in regulating how this will happen in their jurisdictions.

Touted by Verizon, AT&T, other wireless providers and the technology press as the wave of the future, 5G holds the promise to make cable and your home network obsolete by bringing massive bandwidth, blazing internet speeds, a wealth of new TV choices, and connecting everything from home security systems to smart appliances to that Amazon Alexa on your kitchen counter — indeed the entire “internet of things” — all wirelessly and completely over the air.

Some citizens take issue with the profusion of telecom equipment that is increasingly cluttering existing cell phone towers, citing both the visual blight and potential health effects. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

So what is 5G anyway?

5G is best understood in terms of its predecessors – 2G, 3G, and 4G. With the debut of 2G in the early ’90s, wireless phone technology expanded from a voice-only technology to one that supported text messaging. Next was 3G that carried data in addition to text messages and phone calls, bringing email, Facebook and cat videos to your personal device and opening the gates to the explosive growth wireless usage. Most recently 4G LTE (Long-term Evolution) enhanced those capabilities with greater speeds and greater reliability.

If preliminary tests are any indication, 5G will be fast. Really fast. 

The International Telecommunications Union’s latest draft specification calls for a minimum of 20 Gbps downlink and 10 Gbps uplink per mobile base station. That’s 20 times faster than Xfinity’s current top tier download speed (1Gbs).  Most of us live with speeds far less than that.

Sound good? Ready to sign up? Not so fast — there’s a number of wrinkles to be ironed out before you chuck your router, modem and cable DVR.

First, you’ll need new hardware that can use it. This means a new smart phone, new computers, new connected gadgets. Chip developers are already working on 5G capable processors, but they’re still a long way from hitting the market let alone providing the new brain for your smart device.  

The issues with 5G go well beyond you, the end user.  

The crux of the matter for local jurisdictions lies in connecting your device with the cell antenna, and specifically where to locate all the new hardware that makes the 5G system work.

So why not just replace the equipment on existing 4G cell towers with 5G?  

It’s not that simple. Here’s why:

Traditional 4G relies on antennas with a theoretical signal range of up to 50 miles. Happily, the 4G signal can pass through many obstacles thanks to its relatively low frequency (2-8 GHz). But because varying weather conditions and other environmental factors can disrupt signals, cell phone operators generally space antenna installations no more than 20 miles apart. Ever read the details on your cell phone bill and wonder why that call you made in Edmonds says you were in Kingston? That’s because your call jumped over Puget Sound and hit a tower over there rather than here.  

But 5G is a different story. It relies on a shorter wavelength, higher-frequency signals (30-300GHz). The higher frequency is good because it avoids interference from surrounding signals, but is bad because it has a much shorter range and can’t pass through most physical barriers. In some cases, even the leaves of trees are enough to block the signal.

The answer, according to the big wireless providers, is small-cell wireless.  

Small cells are miniature cell phone receiving stations that can be placed on light poles, traffic signals, building roofs, road signs, billboards, and more. So instead of beaming connectivity from a few large cell towers, 5G will utilize lots of small transmitters. They don’t require as much power as full-sized towers, and perform best when clustered together to create more of a mesh network than a point-to-point signal. This requires a lot of hardware and it all has to be attached somewhere.  

This cell phone tower near 5 Corners holds both 4G and 5G capable equipment. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

So what does that mean in terms of locating cell phone antennas and towers? According to the IEEE, 5G cell phone antennas should be no more than a quarter mile apart, closer in less-than-ideal conditions, such as areas with buildings, trees, hills and other obstructions. Think Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace.

“Based on my understanding of the technology, these cells will need to be even closer than a quarter mile apart to ensure reliability under all conditions,” said Drew Burnett, technology officer for the City of Lynnwood. “And because no one has a smart phone today that will work on 5G, the initial installations will first operate as part of the existing 4G system, and only switch to 5G when the technology is ready and standards are set.”

But that means clearing away the barriers to getting them installed — barriers like local governments who want to charge attachment fees, set standards, and generally regulate the process within their jurisdictions. The issue has been fraught with conflict. On one side sit wireless industry officials and others, who argue that what they see as the onerous fees, timelines and process imposed by local jurisdictions are slowing the rollout of 5G network technology. On the other side sit officials of these jurisdictions, arguing that these decisions should be left to local governments.

Enter the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who earlier this year approved a set of new rules aimed removing this barrier to deployment of small cells and other 5G network equipment by strictly limiting the role of local governments in regulating these. 

Announced in September, the rulings suggest $270 per year as a “reasonable” fee for local governments to charge for attaching small-cell wireless devices (for comparison, Seattle typically charges $1,884 for a pole attachment. The FCC rules prohibit what they term “excessive” fees, but do not address just what constitutes excessive. They also set tight timeframes for local governments to approve applications to install small cells to 60 days for installations added to existing structures and 90 days when a provider wants to erect a new pole. And they limit local ability to manage small-cell developments to “reasonable” aesthetic reviews, but again, leave the specifics of what constitutes reasonable unaddressed.

In a statement released immediately after the vote, FCC Chair Brendan Carr said: “In the global race to 5G, the stakes are high — it is about economic leadership for the next decade. The smart infrastructure policies we adopt today strengthen America’s role as a tech and economic leader, while ensuring that every community benefits from 5G. Wireless providers are projected to spend $275 billion in the U.S. to build 5G, which represents a massive private sector investment in American infrastructure and jobs –without a penny of new taxes. Today’s order streamlines the approval process for 5G small cells and helps ensure that our country will continue to be the innovation hub of the world.”

Critics interpret this as the FCC saying that local government rules, procedures and processes constitute a speed bump on the road to a 5G future, and unnecessarily impede and delay the deployment of 5G wireless infrastructure. But a large number of U.S. cities from Los Angeles to tiny Doylestown, Penn. are fighting back against that argument, contending that they should remain in charge of the costs and timelines associated with small-cell deployments.  

And our local cities are no exception.

Edmonds Public Works Director Phil Williams says the city has already had two dozen applications to install small-cell equipment.

“It feels like the FCC is telling us that they know more than we do about the permitting process, local costs and impacts,” said Phil Williams, director of public works for the City of Edmonds. “They’re essentially saying ‘you will respond within this length of time, this is what you’ll charge, and this is what they’ll look like and where they’ll go.’ These rules don’t leave us much wiggle room, but the Edmonds City Attorney is working on an ordinance to allow Edmonds at least some ability to regulate within that framework.”

In anticipation of the coming surge of 5G applications, in March the City of Lynnwood adopted revisions to Municipal Code section 2190 regarding the local development standards including appearance and technical specifications of Wireless Communications Facilities. Additionally, Lynnwood is considering an ordinance regarding rental fees for placement of telecommunications equipment on city-owned poles and property, but according to Lynnwood Technology Officer Drew Burnett “a decision was made to hold for a short period of time, hoping to match fees based on a regional rate study.” The issue is scheduled to come before council at its Monday, Dec. 3 meeting. 

City officials in Mountlake Terrace saw the issue looming on the horizon early this year, and responded in April with two interim ordinances (Ords. 2722 and 2723 aimed at regulating the impending rush of small cell wireless applications. 

In a memo conveying these for city council review, Mountlake Terrace City Manager Scott Hugill noted, “The City’s current ordinance provisions are focused on macro facilities — large-scale towers and monopoles for large-scale wireless communications facilities. Among the changes to the zoning ordinance are the adoption of specific design standards for small cell deployments. Existing City provisions regarding large-scale macro facilities and monopoles remain in place.”

Hugill went on to point out that “due to strict federal regulations, limitations are placed on the amount of time which cities have to review facilities,” and that one goal of the ordinances is to “provide administrative processes which can meet the deadlines.”  The City’s current Wireless Telecommunications and Small Cell Wireless Work Program reflects this tight timeline.

A utility worker installs a typical small cell wireless station in Sacramento, Calif. (Photo courtesy Verizon)

But even though the technology isn’t there yet, cell phone carriers are in a mad rush to beat the competition and be first to get their equipment deployed in your neighborhood.  This has already begun in our area, with telecommunications companies quietly installing 5G capable equipment on existing cell phone towers. For the time being they’ll operate on the 4G frequencies with the side benefit of adding capacity to the existing system. But once sufficient 5G equipment (e.g., small-cell transmitters) is in place, it will be a simple matter to switch them over to the new standard. 

And all three cities have already received applications for locating small cell equipment.

“It’s a technological feeding frenzy,” observed Williams. “We’ve already had a couple of dozen applications to install small-cell equipment, and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s shaping up to be a David and Goliath kind of confrontation, pitting local governments against the combined weight of the federal government and big wireless companies. Add a tight timeframe driven by wireless providers rushing to beat the others and be first on your block with small cell installations, and federal regulators seemingly inclined to remove barriers to this happening, and it’s clear that local jurisdictions need to act if they are to have a meaningful role in shaping the outcome. 

— By Larry Vogel

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