Orlando’s planning department has projected carriers will need about 20,000 nodes to bring about 60 percent coverage, with most of it needed to bring strong coverage to dense downtown and touristy International Drive.
(TNS) — Wireless speeds with 5G connectivity up to 100 times faster than existing service is coming — and potentially soon — to Orlando and other cities, potentially unlocking new jobs, autonomous vehicles and other innovations.
To upgrade from the current 4G network, carriers including Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile will install hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment across the country. Called small-cell nodes, the antennas and corresponding radio equipment are frequently attached to poles in the public right of way with a limited range, so they’re needed about every tenth of a mile to properly service an area.
Orlando’s planning department has projected carriers will need about 20,000 nodes to bring about 60% coverage, with the most needed to bring strong coverage to dense downtown and touristy International Drive. At a City Council workshop this month, officials said they and the city-owned Orlando Utilities Commission were studying how to encourage carriers to attach their antennas and radio equipment to the same poles, preventing equipment clutter on Orange Avenue.
“What we have beginning to happen is a lot of nodes occurring on Orange Avenue. If you were to line them all up, you’d be looking at a node every 90 feet,” Chief Planner Doug Metzger said. “In my perfect world, I’d love to get two nodes on every pole.”
For that to happen, carriers would need to either agree to share new poles installed throughout the city or reach an agreement with OUC to install equipment on the utility’s tower. OUC has some small-cell agreements for antennas to be installed on its poles, though they currently don’t yet have 5G antennas, utility spokesman Tim Trudell said.
The study is underway, and Metzger said he hopes a plan is developed by early October.
Florida cities maintain limited leverage over carriers in Florida, as state legislators pre-empted municipalities from regulating wireless infrastructure in 2017 and further restricted it in 2019. But this isn’t an onerous request, said Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association.
The national trade group counts AT&T and Verizon among its ranks, as well as manufacturers of equipment.
“My members do try to accommodate reasonable requests from communities, and that strikes me as something that isn’t unreasonable,” said Adelstein, a former commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, twice nominated by President George W. Bush. “This is Orlando being thoughtful.”
The 2017 legislation, sponsored in the House by state Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, is being challenged in a lawsuit filed by the Florida League of Cities, along with Naples, Port Orange and Fort Walton Beach, which contend the law allows private businesses to take over city property, with a $150 per pole cap as a fee.
“We felt the Legislature’s actions were pretty egregious in those two narrow areas,” said Kraig Conn, general counsel for the League of Cities.
Meanwhile, Orlando also is expected to consider at least three new 5G cell towers by year’s end in different pockets of the city in order to build a denser network, Metzger said.
Mayor Buddy Dyer has long been an advocate for the potential of 5G — calling it the “modern equivalent to the space race” in a speech earlier this year — and sees it acting as a dividing line nationwide in the coming years.
“I truly believe in the next decade there’s going to be a real separation among cities in America and regions of America,” Dyer said at a recent council workshop. “Those that take advantage of technology, and the applications that we don’t even know are coming, are going to move ahead and a lot of cities are going to end up being left behind.”
To speed up roll out, Orlando has allowed carriers to create a master file of all poles and equipment they anticipate using in the city. Once that master file is approved, staff reviews on individual small-cell permits could be halved, Metzger said.
Even still, the 5G build out is expected to take years, with the city and Adelstein expecting 2020 to bring an increase in activity.
The high-speed technology will be crucial for the city to reach its goals of being a leader in autonomous vehicles. Orlando has been named one of 10 proving grounds by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
While 5G nodes currently aren’t downtown, crews are laying dense networks of fiber-optic cable to help run the service eventually. Metzger said the work was likely the most significant infrastructure upgrade since the electrical grid was built.
Elsewhere in Central Florida, Winter Park could also see early interest from 5G companies. The city has had talks with carriers, though its city commission hasn’t formally reviewed policy on 5G.
However, Winter Park shares aesthetic concerns, as it has spent millions in recent years burying its power lines, while state law now allows carriers to build poles in the public right of way.
Adelstein said cities that work with carriers will be the first to benefit from the automation and economic opportunity that 5G will facilitate.
“The cities that make it easy to deploy wireless infrastructure will be the first to get 5G,” Adelstein said. “I expect Orlando to be in the company of those who get 5G first."
©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.