5G wireless technology, or the “fifth generation” network, is being heralded by wireless industry leaders as the future of connectivity. This is undoubtedly true. But the future looks more like today than most realize.
Any discussion of the future of wireless and 5G merits a reminder that mobile wireless and fixed high-capacity connections are complements, not substitutes, to one another. While mobile wireless offers flexible mobility and coverage, fixed connections are more reliable and secure. Both connections play important roles in a connected community.
What is 5G?
A 5G network will utilize small cells. Small cells provide wireless service via a connection to fiber optic networks. These units are much smaller and exist closer to the user — often attached to telephone poles and light posts — than macro cells (“cell towers”). Small cells already exist in many cities to provide 4G services. The 5G network is expected to use high frequency spectrum, operating between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. The goal is to create a faster network with especially high adaptability and low latency.
The coming 5G mobile network will be a fast and adaptable network that can benefit residents and business significantly. The decidedly faster speeds offered by 5G could redefine the parameters of smartphone use in crowded spaces – sending a text in a stadium full of people will be no problem for a 5G connection. A 5G network will also be able to keep up with consumer demands, such as high volumes of video streaming. And 5G’s benefits will reach far beyond cellular connection. The capacity of 5G has the potential to enable smart city technologies such as self-driving cars, smart transportation networks, and much more — innovations that can allow cities to offer more efficient and reliable services for their citizens.
While the potential benefits are promising, the specifics of what exactly a 5G network would look like are still in the works. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a United Nations agency in charge of setting industry standards for new technology, hasn’t officially defined 5G. Their global standard would ensure compatibility between competitors’ networks and set performance requirements such as speed. Because these standards haven’t been set, the 5G network isn’t ready to be widely commercially available. Currently, select carriers are just experimenting with technologies in small pockets across the country.
How can 5G benefit my community?
Because this new network will be built using small cells, 5G deployments can benefit cities even before a full 5G network is available. Additional small cell infrastructure can be built in areas with existing 4G networks, creating a stronger and higher capacity connection. This additional infrastructure will “densify” the existing network, creating more available bandwidth and therefore a faster connection. Densification is especially transformative in heavily populated areas, because it allows more people to use the network simultaneously.
Because 5G provides a powerful, short-range connection, it is unlikely that a 5G network will be built any time soon in rural areas. Relatively densely populated communities that are ready to work collaboratively with providers will likely be among the first to benefit from 5G technology.
How can my city be 5G-ready?
There are key steps that cities can take to be collaborative and attractive to potential providers:
Review Your Permitting Processes. Most current permitting processes were designed with large cell towers in mind. A 5G network requires many more (and much smaller) deployments, so vendors will be most attracted to cities with updated, streamlined permitting processes. One example of this is “batch permitting,” where a city identifies a certain pole type and allows the vendor to submit one permit for multiple poles. See this podcast for Lincoln, Neb.’s example.
Manage Your Assets. Identify city-owned assets and make that information easily available to vendors. Additionally, cities can use the infrastructure they own, such as light poles or traffic lights, as leverage when negotiating mutually beneficial agreements with private service providers. Both Lincoln, Neb. and Boston, Mass. have set strong examples of how to create partnerships with service providers in order to successfully deploy small cells while maintaining local control.
Identify a Contact Person. Identify a contact person within your city who can handle communications with vendors. Having a single “go-to” contact person makes it easier to form relationships with vendors, and can help you stay organized internally and expedite the process.
Be Proactive. Establish these policies now, rather than waiting to update policies when a carrier or neutral host company comes knocking at the door.
How can I protect my local control?
In addition to practicing collaborative habits, it is important for local governments to stay informed about proposed state and federal legislature around small cell permitting. Close to half of all states have introduced or passed bills that could limit cities’ authority over small cell deployment. These bills have the potential to prevent cities from addressing aesthetic or safety concerns, may control the amount a city is reimbursed for its costs to process the permits, and could reduce compensation for use of the city’s rights-of-way. Cities can play a role in shaping state legislation by voicing their opinion through their municipal league, by contacting their state legislature, and by starting a dialogue with fellow cities.
There are also actions on the federal level that could affect local authority. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on the topic of “Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment.” This proceeding suggests stripping local governments of siting authority by significantly shortening permitting “shot clocks” and eliminating cities’ ability to temporarily freeze complicated siting applications. Sending comments to the FCC is the most effective way cities can make their voices heard. While the period to comment on this particular proceeding has passed, cities should comment on future proceedings that could affect local control. (See Next Century Cities’ how-to guide for help submitting comments.)
Finally, it is important for cities to understand the reality of small cell installations. The wireless industry consistently claims that these devices are “the size of a pizza box,” and that they are nonintrusive and easy to install. In reality, however, small cells can be the size of a small refrigerator, and require a significant amount of accompanying infrastructure, such as meter sockets, distribution boxes, cooling fans, and more (see photo below). Service providers have been known to propose new poles of 75 feet, or almost seven stories tall. It is in each city’s best interest to understand the reality of small cell attachments, so that they can make informed decisions for their communities. See more about small cells in our Fact Sheet from earlier this year.
Ultimately, 5G will benefit communities in real and exciting ways. Greatly improved speeds will allow more citizens to get online simultaneously, and lower latency will enable new Internet of Things technologies. But cities should manage their expectations — 5G won’t be widespread for several years, and there are drawbacks to deployment, such as aesthetic concerns. The best way that cities can prepare for 5G is by preparing to be a collaborative partner with 5G vendors, staying informed about proposed local and federal legislation, and advocating for their local rights.
Cat Blake is the Policy and Program Manager at Next Century Cities.