To move to 5G, telecom companies will need to update and expand their vast networks to the new technology.

Photo: AFP via Getty Images
A cell phone tower in snowy Orem, Utah

What telcos wish smaller cities knew about getting 5G

Towns and telcos both have headaches when installing new technology like 5G networks. Here's how the process could go a little smoother.

In Montclair, New Jersey, there was a debate over telephone poles.

At a town council meeting in April 2019, a group of residents who lived on Gray Street showed up to complain about a 5G radio that Verizon wanted to put on a pole there. The residents said they were concerned by the potential "health issues" of the new radio, something the group said they'd brought before the council in the past. A representative of the group said that when Verizon workers came to install a new pole on their street, residents told them they needed a new permit to carry out the work. The Verizon workers disagreed. A police officer happened to be in the area and told the workers they did indeed need a new permit. "Why does Verizon not know they need an additional permit?" the representative wanted to know.

As of this week, Verizon's 5G radio has still not been installed on Gray street, a representative from the city of Montclair confirmed to Protocol. Verizon wasn't immediately available to comment.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

Similar situations are playing out in towns across the U.S. as the major telecom companies have begun to roll out the infrastructure necessary to run 5G wireless networks. Some cities, like Sacramento, want to be seen as forward-thinking hubs of innovation intent on attracting the jobs (and tax-paying workers) of tomorrow.

Others, like Montclair, aren't so sure. Some are merely curious, while others have concerns about what it could mean to the look of their town or the health of their residents. Telecom executives and industry experts say cities are often focused on the wrong issues. That, coupled with inadequate local bureaucracy in smaller towns, can lead to gridlock that prevents the next-generation infrastructure from being built.

"Municipalities should be asking operators how many cell sites they plan to build, how many do they need, and how many do they want," Anshel Sag, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said over email. "Most municipalities are so afraid of 5G that they aren't even really asking the right questions and instead are blanket banning 5G without even knowing if the spectrum that will be deployed is even any different from the spectrum being used today for 4G — shocker, most of it is the same."

But what should local municipalities really be asking about 5G, and how can telecom companies better inform them about what they're doing? There's room for discussion on both sides.

Getting your paperwork in order

According to some in the telecom industry, it's generally easier to work with large municipalities on rolling out new technology like 5G than it is with small towns. Although it may seem like the amount of red tape in a city like New York would make it tougher to get something new embedded above or below city streets, the opposite is often the case.

A city's bureaucracy might be far from perfect, but they have the processes in place to tender and facilitate new infrastructure that a smaller municipality might not. Smaller locales may also not know exactly what they want or need, Patrick O'Hare, the SVP of operations at network technology provider ZenFi, told Protocol. "In the absence of rules, it actually takes longer than when you have a laundry list of rules," he said.

Smaller towns sometimes have less of a grasp on what's possible with new technologies, and what they need to do to have 5G in their neighborhood. "Everyone wants better cell service, but no one wants cell towers," O'Hare said.

"When we go out to some other municipalities, we find that they don't know exactly what they want, so they can't exactly tell us what they want us to do and things get bogged down," he added.

Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's vice president of Converged Access & Device Technology, agrees that moving through larger municipalities is often easier. "Larger cities have more resources, and they get that [5G's] coming and they're more likely to be working on the problem faster than a small municipality," he said.

Are 5G radios really eyesores?

Any new hardware in a city can be a cause for concern for residents, Mansfield said, as there's the potential that it'll be an eyesore or affect residents' lives in some way, which is exactly what happened in New Jersey. When companies start rolling out millimeter-wave radios across towns, the devices will need to be practically ubiquitous to maintain the high-speed, low-latency 5G connections the network is expected to offer. And that will likely mean more radios in far more obvious places all over towns than traditional cell towers.

"I'm the citizen of a community as well — do I want this big monstrosity on a telephone pole right outside of my house? No way," Mansfield said.

AT&T is trying to mitigate worries towns may have about new radios being installed for 5G, Mansfield said. "There's a lot of folks out there that scare the municipalities," he said, showing them "pictures of older builds that may not be aesthetically pleasing." AT&T's radios, especially the smaller millimeter-wave radios, were chosen to blend in to their environs.

"My vendors hated me up front as I put as much premium on the aesthetics of the solution as I did on the technical capabilities of the solution," Mansfield said. "But those same vendors today come back and thank me because they realized had they not listened, we wouldn't be able to build much at all."

Telecom companies need to better educate municipalities about what the radios they want to install look like and do, but towns also need to work with the companies to create a more streamlined process for installing them, several experts Protocol spoke with said.

Streamlining the application process

"One municipality might say, 'You can throw your radio up on one of our light poles for $25 a year.' The next city over might say, 'We'd do that for $300 a year," said Jason Leigh, a research manager at IDC who covers 5G. Some municipalities will have a 30-day review process for permits, some have a 90-day window; some will want carriers to submit applications for every radio they want to put up, and others will just want a single application for every location.

"It's a pretty cumbersome process to go through — and that's just zoning and permitting," Leigh said. "Whatever you can do to ease that administrative burden and make it consistent — you want to put up 50 light poles, one application for all 50 radios, versus a site-by-site type of permitting process."

But there's also confusion on the side of what telcos are offering. T-Mobile, for example, is forging ahead with a low-frequency network that can primarily utilize existing poles for coverage. By contrast, AT&T's mmWave radios need to be closer to their end users to reliably work. The lower-frequency approach means telcos can cover a wider area with a single tower, but they'll have far greater latency and potentially slower speeds than higher-frequency options.

"None of these layers in and of themselves are the answer to 5G," said Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile's vice president of technology development and strategy. But telcos need to work with municipalities to ensure they understand what exactly they're proposing for their town. "It's all about level-setting and making them understand," he said. "It goes back into the varying degrees of understanding on what 5G can deliver."

The health concerns are not new concerns

Towns and residents also have apprehensions about potential health issues with 5G radios. There is some debate over whether some of the higher frequencies used in 5G are a radiation risk, and whether telecom companies and radio manufacturers have done enough to explain the reality of the situation to communities. "I think that the industry would probably need to not necessarily dismiss the radiation concerns as handily as they did with LTE," Leigh said, which is a subject still being researched today, a decade after 4G's consumer release. "I think there's got to be a little bit of a more robust response to that."

"Those concerns come up, but the reality is there's been a tremendous amount of study," AT&T's Mansfield said referencing reports from the CTIA and WHO. "Outside of pointing people to the actual studies, there's not much else that you can do."

What can telecom companies offer towns?

This transaction between telcos and towns also shouldn't be one-sided: Towns and cities can ask why these companies need the locations they're after and what the companies can do for them.

"It's not just today, but what are my plans in my town, economic-development wise, in two, three, five years?" Leigh said. He added that towns should be asking what the value to them is in installing 5G, how it can spur new developments, increase property value, or benefit local schools. "I don't think they should sell themselves out in order to get 5G, but at the same time they need to think strategically about where those benefits can be long-term."

Latest Stories