Keene, N.H., Looks Toward a Future with 5G. But When?

As some cities and towns struggle with basic high-speed Internet service, officials in the Elm City are looking at what sort of changes the next-generation service could bring — including changes to the skyline.

by Jake Lahut, The Keene Sentinel / September 26, 2019
Shutterstock/Lisic

(TNS) — With communities in the Monadnock Region still struggling with basic high speed Internet and broadband access, a new, more powerful cell system could easily be a fantasy.

However, the jump from 4G to 5G — the fifth generation of cellular service in download speed and other practical applications — could drastically change how consumers and municipalities operate.

Elm City leaders are already putting considerable thought behind how to use it, but at least two Keene officials don’t expect to see 5G arrive locally anytime soon.

“What I expect is going to happen is, just like with any other [telecommunications] technology, the providers will invest a lot more in the more urban areas than in the rural areas, like Keene,” said Rebecca Landry, Keene’s IT director and assistant city manager. “Now, Keene is a city in New Hampshire, but relative to the rest of the nation, it’s pretty rural.

“We’ll get some investment, and I’m glad about that, because we need to make sure that our businesses and our residences have modern-day technology, but I don’t think we’re going to see an influx of hundreds and hundreds of antennas hitting our doorstep tomorrow.”

And that’s an appropriate picture to paint. Unlike the current system of 4G LTE and 3G, which use relatively few tall, isolated towers to send signals to phones and other devices, 5G has a much more decentralized setup. It requires many smaller low-powered cellular radio access nodes — essentially outdoor modems.

In terms of bandwidth, 5G is to 4G what a sheet of lasagna is to angel hair pasta. And that brings a corresponding increase in speed.

The tradeoff comes in the distance of the signals, with 5G requiring multiple nodes to be placed on electric poles, lamps or even the corners of buildings to cover an area, instead of relying on one local tower.

That depth of coverage, though means unprecedented speed.

Take a standard movie file, for example. Those two hours of video take up around three gigabytes (GB) of space — enough to require patience over a cell tower signal. On a 3G cellphone, that movie would take more than an hour to download. On a 4G signal, it would be between 27 and 40 minutes, depending on LTE strength.

But within range of a 5G modem? In just over 30 seconds, the movie is ready to play.

As Landry notes, though, there are still homes in Keene struggling to get over the low threshold of three megabits per second download speed on a home computer or WiFi signal, while 5G promises speeds of around 20,480 megabits per second.

“These are neighborhoods where 5G is not going to be deployed, most likely, and we’re still going to need to solve those problems,” Landry said.

Elm City officials have planned for what a 5G world could look like, particularly in the downtown, but any decent rollout would still require government assistance to make such an initiative cost-effective. Chances are, mobile service providers aren’t going to see this area as lucrative enough to be a priority.

Kürt Blomquist, the director of public works and emergency management in Keene, said 5G will come with many of the same problems the city saw with broadband, with the proverbial “last mile” of coverage often proving too expensive for the telecom companies.

Nevertheless, Blomquist said 5G could have helpful implications for first responders in what’s known as FirstNet, a closed-off statewide Internet communications service police, fire and ambulance staff can use at high speeds in emergencies.

“I’ve been involved with this question, with this idea about, again, how do we get these higher level services — particularly in rural cities, rural communities, and particularly in Keene — how do we get it, in many cases, not even to real remote areas of Keene, but to areas sort of outside of the core,” Blomquist said Tuesday. “Because our particular provider, where they have the capability, they’ll provide it, but whenever you get up to our Hurricane Roads, those areas ... where you have less density or residences, they’re like, ‘Sure, we’ll go up there, but it will cost this much per mile.’”

The other challenge both Landry and Blomquist have examined is the visual impact of 5G on residents.

“In general, people are pretty sensitive to the aesthetics of anything that you drive by or can see out your livingroom window,” Landry said.

The modems, while powerful, are still bulky and look like the bottoms of steam irons.

Blomquist added another challenge: that Eversource, Spectrum and other companies own most of the power poles in Keene, and may not be eager to install 5G nodes right away.

Getting around that, and perhaps finding a more pleasing alternative to tacking the sensors on poles, Blomquist said, would be for the city to use its “right of way” jurisdiction to put them discretely along sidewalks or a few feet off of the road in neighborhoods without sidewalks.

If downtown Keene were to end up being outfitted with 5G coverage, Blomquist said the possibilities for the city could range from autonomous vehicles operating in conjunction with traffic signals, guardrails and other contraptions — an extension of what’s known as “the Internet of things,” like smart watches and voice-activated systems like Alexa — as well as police officers being able to share body cam footage and other info with the station in real time.

Beyond that, Blomquist said, 5G will be “an economic driver” for small businesses and for employees looking to take advantage of working remotely.

“More people are working from their homes, whether it’s full time from their homes or part time ... which means that your home now needs to have access to those same capacities as you would have sitting at your desk at your office,” Blomquist said.

While the possibilities are exciting and the city continues planning for the future, Landry returned to a cautionary tone.

“I don’t want 5G to be thought of as the magic wand,” she said. “We’ll certainly accommodate it to the extent it’s helpful to our community, but we definitely need to think about multiple solutions to solve our broadband problems.”

©2019 The Keene Sentinel (Keene, N.H.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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