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Southern California Cities Grapple with 5G Infrastructure

Companies are increasingly looking to place small cell antennas throughout cities large and small, but each locality varies when it comes to their level of enthusiasm about the technology.

(TNS) — You may not think much about the small elongated cylinders or boxes perched on rooftops or street lights.

But those small wireless facilities, dubbed “small cells,” are the building blocks for 5G, an ultra-fast wireless technology that will quicken the things you do on your cellphone and unleash a new generation of devices.

5G won’t roll out to much of Southern California for a few more years, but companies such as Verizon and AT&T are beginning to install the necessary infrastructure, including those small cells pole by pole, across the region.

Communities from Huntington Beach to Pasadena are grappling with more and more requests to install equipment and balancing the emerging technology needs – 5G will also help them improve operations from addressing gridlock in their streets to deciding where to dispatch police officers – with residents who are still concerned about the community aesthetics and the potential impacts of radiation on their health.

And the federal government is now stepping in to make sure communities don’t get in the way of deploying the infrastructure as quickly and as widely as possible.

“The FCC is trying to take away control of the time, place, manner and even aesthetics,” Antonia Graham, assistant to the Huntington Beach city manager, said of the government agency’s efforts to restrict cities’ control over the small cell structures. “For communities, we are hamstrung by the FCC.”

What is 5G?

Cellphone towers have traditionally been tall, bulky steel towers – maybe fashioned to look like a palm tree or evergreen – spaced hundreds of yards or even miles apart.

But for 5G to work, at least in dense areas such as urban Southern California, companies need to pack their cell sites tightly together – hundreds of feet apart – and closer to the users.

Why? With 5G, companies can begin to use what’s called a millimeter wave. The high-frequency wave doesn’t travel far, but it can deliver a much faster Internet speed, up to 20 times faster than 4G, and with a quicker response, Verizon says.

That means with 5G, you can download a full, high-definition movie within a couple of minutes and you will spend less time waiting between clicking a link and having it show up on your cellphone.

But the technology has a greater ramification than just providing a faster Internet experience, UC Irvine computer science professor Scott Jordan said.

4G can handle Internet traffic from smartphones and tablets, but not much beyond that.

5G, because it has a higher capacity, can handle the increasing traffic from your new Alexa devices and that refrigerator that emails you a shopping list. It allows self-driving cars to communicate with each other so they don’t get in a crash. Manufacturing plants can use wireless sensors to alert when equipment is breaking down. Cities can deploy wireless sensors to collect a variety of data throughout the community from street light outages to airplane noise levels.

“There are so many different applications you can put in those street light poles,” Huntington Beach’s Graham said.

Cities evaluate small cells

The proliferation of requests to install the small cell equipment has also been beneficial to many city budgets around Southern California.

Cities have negotiated annual payments from wireless companies installing a small cell on a utility pole that range from $40 to $4,000, according to data collected by the California Street Light Association.

Crown Castle, a wireless infrastructure company, is installing small cells on Long Beach’s street poles and other city-owned space. In return, Long Beach is getting upwards of $1,500 a pole and use of the company’s infrastructure to build out the city’s fiber network, the California Street Light Association’s 2018 report said.

Daniel Schweizer, Crown Castle’s director of government affairs for the western United States, said the company has made tremendous progress in installing small cells in Southern California, engaging with 25 of 34 of Orange County cities, for instance.

But the Federal Communications Commission is now restricting how much cities can charge the companies to install equipment: $500 for up to five cells, $100 a cell after that and a $270 annual access fee for each cell.

“As more Americans use more wireless services, demand for new technologies, coverage and capacity will necessarily increase, making it critical that the deployment of wireless infrastructure, particularly small wireless facilities, not be stymied by unreasonable state and local requirements,” the FCC wrote in its September order.

The concern now is wireless companies will try to break or renegotiate down existing agreements and the FCC’s restrictions could keep cities from recouping their cost for reviewing and administering proposals and permits, said Rony Berdugo, a legislative representative for the League of California Cities, which advocates for local governments.

La Verne city officials recently said the FCC ruling has reduced the revenue they expected from a citywide project from $150,000 annually to $35,000 a year.

More than a dozen cities, including Arcadia, Huntington Beach, Ontario and San Jacinto, filed a petition in January challenging the FCC ruling in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cities also now have only 60 to 90 days to review the permits for a small cell.

That small of a window means residents will have less time to voice their opinions about the look or effect on their neighborhood of cell sites, San Juan Capistrano Councilman Sergio Farias said. Officials expect an influx of requests in the next year or so.

“We should have the discretion to listen to our residents, he said.

But Crown Castle’s Schweizer said the ruling will help both cities and the wireless industry. “Setting up the predictability of what can be a confusing process is a benefit for the industry, community and the city staff.”

Schweizer didn’t have an answer for how many small cells will likely be installed in Southern California in the next few years. But he was sure of one thing: “When you see a large, dense area you’ll see a large amount of small cells.”

©2019 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.