Sacramento, Calif., expects to soon be the first city in the nation with commercially available 5G telecommunications networking. City officials see big promise in the emerging technology. “Smart city stuff, IoT, autonomous vehicles: We will use it for all of those things,” said CIO and IT Director Maria MacGunigal. 

Yet MacGunigal isn’t primarily focused on the whiz-bang municipal impact of 5G. “The use cases will change 100 times,” she predicted. “What we do know is that we will need the infrastructure, so we want to build it and build it well. The infrastructure is what needs to be strong.” 

Nationwide, IT leaders in state and local government are following a similar trajectory. They’re stoking enthusiasm for the promise of 5G: a bigger, faster, more reliable network built to empower a coming wave of connected-everything. At the same time, they’re taking a sober look at infrastructure requirements, seeking a path forward that is financially viable and technically feasible.

The promise of 5G

Along with increased bandwidth, 5G networks promise speed and reliability, with network latency reduced from about 50 milliseconds to one. Because 5G would operate in the high-frequency spectrum, between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, signal would travel across hundreds or thousands of small cells, often attached to telephone poles and light posts, rather than relying on dozens of big cell towers. 

As described in IEEE Spectrum, small cells would be placed every 250 meters across a city, forming a dense urban network for efficient, uninterrupted signal relay. “This radically different network structure should provide more targeted and efficient use of spectrum,” IEEE predicts. Traffic-signaling techniques such as “beamforming” (which concentrates Wi-Fi signals to improve signal strength) could identify the most efficient route for data delivery, reducing interference and bolstering network efficiency. 

All these technical enhancements could open up a range of game-changing use cases for municipal IT leaders. 

In a world of connected devices, 5G’s speed, bandwidth and super-low latency could help shape vehicle traffic flow in real time. It could enable interconnected sensors to report on the status of infrastructure elements, or leverage the full potential of real-time video in emergencies. “As we move to the IoT area, anything that has streaming video or large amounts of data transfer will benefit from 5G,” said San Jose, Calif., Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham. 

Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer, San Jose, Calif.

She’s especially excited about the potential to ensure the safety of self-driving cars. “We are in the heart of Silicon Valley and we have many of the autonomous vehicle companies here,” said Santosham. “5G can be very useful to them in terms of vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity.” 

Unlike previous telecom networking schemes, the 5G specs were drawn up with connected devices as a prime consideration. This means, for example, that the network is optimized to prolong the battery life of IoT devices, which could be a boon for municipal IT executives looking to roll out smart city solutions. “If you are a municipality trying to deploy sensors and you don’t want to change batteries more than every five or 10 years, then power consumption becomes important,” said Dileep Srihari, senior policy counsel and director of government affairs for the Telecommunications Industry Association. 

The power-management standards are part of a bigger picture. Unlike previous iterations, the 5G network has standards — for example, around network security. “There has been a lot more thought put into this than has happened before,” Srihari said. “Consumers might not draw on this so much, but for state and local government, this becomes extremely important.” 

A standards-based approach gives state and local government some assurance that their 5G investments will lead them in the right direction. “In 2G and 3G, you couldn’t forecast what the carriers were going to do, you couldn’t know whether future networks would be affordable or stable. 5G stabilizes your business decisions. For the first time the carriers have laid out a road map, giving a clear forward-looking view,” said Scott Nelson, chief product officer and vice president of Product at IoT provider Digi International. “Having standards means you can reduce cost and increase flexibility.” 

All this sounds promising: Standards help deliver more bandwidth, more stability, as well as the promise of real-time communication across a broad spectrum of connected devices. That’s 5G in a nutshell, and while municipal IT chiefs are excited about the potential, they acknowledge that getting there may still be a long and winding road.

Getting carriers to commit

In Oakland County, Mich., Deputy County Executive and CIO Phil Bertolini echoes a sentiment shared by many in government IT. He likes 5G in principle, but he’s looking for the catch. “We have legacy equipment, so the question becomes: What happens to that equipment and is it capable of running 5G? Will we have to change out all our devices? We have police with mobile networks in their cars, and what happens to that under 5G? Those are all unknowns,” he said. 

If the unknowns are worrisome, so are some of the knowns. Various estimates put the cost of 5G upgrades at $200 billion a year in the short term; a Deloitte study suggests at least $130 billion in new fiber-optic cabling will have to be deployed to support the network. While carriers will likely foot the bill for much of the needed research and development, as well as for hardware deployments, local government still will have to find its way through a new and largely uncharted telecom territory. Much hinges on those “small cells,” the hundreds or thousands of base units that will form the core of the 5G network on the ground. 

“Municipalities need to understand the business case that will be needed to get the carriers to make the commitment. The cost structure for a million small cells is very different from the cost structure around a cell tower,” said Tejas Rao, managing director and global 5G offering lead for Accenture’s network practice. 

That means cities must rethink the rules of engagement they apply when negotiating with carriers over right of way and access to critical assets like lampposts and stoplights. “The fees associated with permitting, the rental fees associated with being on that pole — all that will have to be drastically different,” Rao said. 

This is a potential minefield, made more complicated by the Federal Communications Commission’s recent efforts to tilt the tables in favor of the carriers. In March the FCC voted to loosen regulations, effectively making it easier for operators to deploy small cell infrastructure. The commission removed federal oversight of small cells outlined in the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and nullified certain required environmental assessments. 

The changes don’t override state and local regulations, but they are indicative of what some see as a contentious environment, with carriers seeking unfettered access to deploy small cells and cities grasping to maintain control of their local assets. 

Still other potential pitfalls loom. Take, for instance, the need for backhaul, some kind of fiber connectivity to link together those thousands of small cells. “If you are going to be running fiber to all those small cells, then a big part of the city’s role is about permitting, managing the public right of way,” Srihari said. “Digging up roads is really expensive. Our association advocates a policy of ‘dig once.’ Whenever a road is being dug up, there should be a conversation with the local broadband providers to talk about maybe putting in a piece of pipe today while we’re digging that will save everyone on costs further down the road.” 

Early adopters

AT&T has said it will seek an early rollout of 5G capabilities in Dallas and Waco, Texas, two cities with which it has close ties. Waco already has a 5G pilot underway and retail availability should come around by the end of 2018. Officials in Spokane Valley, Wash., have said they will write small cell installation agreements with Verizon, Mobilitie and MCI Telecom. They’re updating city code to allow for implementation of this key piece of 5G infrastructure. San Jose officials approved a deal with AT&T in May to deploy about 200 small cells on city light poles, and Santosham said the city is likely one to two years away from a 5G deployment. In order to get there, the city must get some of its own assets in order.

“Deployment of 5G small cells will be predominantly on streetlight infrastructure, so there need to be upgrades to that including electronic upgrades, mapping of that infrastructure, training for the Public Works Department on how to work with the new technology,” she said. “There is also a conversation about where in the city we will deploy small cells and what the coverage is going to look like. We want to balance access across the city so we get 5G to all our neighborhoods and not just in the wealthier neighborhoods.” 

In Sacramento, those conversations have been going on for some time, largely between the city and its 5G partner, Verizon. The city expects to deploy 5G as early as this summer, thanks in part to diligent legwork by municipal authorities. 

MacGunigal, pictured with systems engineers Ronnie Oyula (center) and Curtis Chiuu. Sacramento has given Verizon access to 101 utility poles and expedited permitting in exchange for the company's $150 million investment in 5G infrastructure.

Knowing 5G would require a dense distribution of small cells, officials undertook a wireless master plan that calls for a broad rollout of radio sites and supporting infrastructure. In June 2017, the city inked a deal giving Verizon access to 101 utility poles and promising expedited permitting. In exchange, the company agreed to establish 5G infrastructure throughout the city and install free Wi-Fi at 27 parks, investing $150 million overall in the 5G effort. 

While other carriers can compete to enter the 5G market in Sacramento, the city’s strategic partnership with Verizon clearly was key to its rapid adoption timetable. “They are building out the fiber-optic network and we get a piece of some of that, with things like connected intersections. They also provide us smart city solutions,” MacGunigal said. “In return, we provide them with reduced or deferred lease rates for streetlight attachments and a streamlined development process.” 

Looking ahead, many see this cooperative approach as a key element in future municipal 5G implementations. Where some describe a competitive situation — with carriers and cities vying for control of key assets — others say that a spirit of cooperation will likely yield better results for all concerned.

Business model vs. municipal control

As Sacramento’s partner on the telecom side, Verizon says it is equally invested in the cooperation narrative. The company sees an opportunity to partner with cities in helping them achieve some of their objectives with the deployment of smart community solutions, while also deploying the backbone that’s required for a whole array of added solutions that will benefit from 5G in the future, according to Sean Harrington, Verizon’s vice president of City Solutions. 

Harrington acknowledges that cities and carriers don’t always start out on the same page: In his view, municipalities may over-rate the commercial value of their lampposts. But he also talks up the value of honest dialog around these issues. 

“Some cities may have higher expectations around what they think the value is of the assets that they have, and we want to take those expectations into account, while also thinking about the realities of our business,” he said. “It really is a partnership: Here are our objectives, tell us your objectives. We have a bunch of tools in our toolkit. Let’s put those pieces together.” 

Some telecom industry advocates go a step further, urging cities to rein in their ambitions. “People should be focused on reasonable cost recovery. If you are talking $6,000 or $10,000 fees to put one small cell on one lamppost, that’s not reasonable. And we have seen that: There are all sorts of crazy practices,” Srihari said. “The industry is very concerned about this. There is no opposition to reasonable cost recovery, but we do need to change the paradigm to recognize that these are not gigantic towers. If you charge these kinds of fees you will slow down deployment. Carriers won’t want to come.” 

Santosham sees plenty of room for compromise. “There is a narrative in the space right now that says cities are the problem and are getting in the way of deployment because of overly burdensome regulations. The reality is, I don’t know a city that doesn’t want broadband,” she said. “They really want this technology and are looking for ways to work with the carriers. There is mutual interest here,” she said. “Our role in government is to make sure we get those deployments in a way that is equitable and in the best interests of our residents.” 

It isn’t all about the money, either. In the run-up to 5G, IT leaders must think not just about the monetization of lampposts, but also about more fundamental infrastructure questions, and some in government say they are waiting for industry to take the lead. 

The state of Georgia has sent out feelers around 5G, with a couple of legislative efforts to streamline permitting. But IT officials there say they need technical guidance from the carriers in order to move forward. 

“From a technology point of view, our philosophy is to lean heavily on the private sector to bring a solution. We look to our partners: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and Southern Linc. 5G will show up when they say it is ready,” said the state’s Chief Technology Officer Steve Nichols. “At the moment we don’t have a real technology strategy. Other than telling us how great it’s going to be, they haven’t shared with us any concrete road maps.” 

In Georgia, CTO Steve Nichols says the private sector needs to come to the state with a road map to 5G.

As IT executives wait for those new models to emerge, they can still lay the groundwork for 5G by considering internal issues. 

“You need to look at your processes about how you want to lease, what your design standards are, how you will provide electricity. All those things are really important,” Sacramento’s MacGunigal said. “We have more than 40,000 streetlights but only 9,000 are appropriate for attachment, so you need to have a really good asset inventory in order to understand that.” 

With that asset inventory in hand, it may be possible to find ways to leverage carrier investments for maximum municipal benefits. In simple terms, cities may want to hang sensors on those same lampposts where carriers want to install small cells. 

“It’s a business model that benefits both the municipality and the carrier,” said Brenda Connor, head of Smart Cities and Intelligent Transport Systems for Ericsson. The same logic works when it comes to laying fiber. “If cities are digging ditches to upgrade water and sewer, maybe you think about growing some fiber down there. It’s about having a combined consideration.” 

Civic technology leaders should be using this time in the run-up to 5G to look at the big picture. With a major infrastructure overhaul looming, it certainly makes sense to ponder finances and also take a deep look into processes around such things as permitting and inspections. Underlying these considerations, though, is a deeper discussion about how 5G’s capabilities will be used, by whom, and for what. 

“Cities first need to understand what services and solutions they could leverage to make it worth their opening up these assets,” Rao said. “They need to look at their communities and the services they are already using. That data could help them to make smarter decisions in terms of the deployment and also the services that might be offered.”