SAN FRANCISCO (Circa) - One of the most important features of a city today is its wireless infrastructure, which is of course what that smartphone in your pocket runs on.
But with the coming of 5G networks, and its expected multiples-of gigabits-per-second speed, cities are undertaking their largest changes to that infrastructure really ever. And it all starts with something called a small cell.
You may have seen a few pop up in your town already: They are, well, smaller than a normal cell tower and are oftentimes attached to existing light poles or utility poles. They don't put out the same power as a typical cell phone tower, but their placement inside of cities, and in large numbers, is what will make 5G a reality.
I met Christos Karmis, CEO and President of Mobilitie, one of several wireless tower contractors working with cities and service providers, in Los Angeles near a small cell his company installed (seen above) outside the campus of USC to talk about the coming build-out.
"[For 5G], there will be several thousand small cells required in every city, no matter whether it’s Los Angeles, New York, Chicago," he explained. The small he showed me was put up recently to boost 4G service. He said ones like it won't need to be on every corner to make 5G happen in typical cities, with the average distribution being "probably 500 or 600 meters." But if you want the full benefit of 5G, your neighborhood is going to have to have some in eyeshot.
Though these new mini towers will amplify, and essentially speed-up, cell service traveling on frequencies that are already beaming through the air today, so many new devices beyond smartphones are expected to jump onto 5G, Karmis said, that the only way to get enough room for all of that is to expand networks to new wireless frequencies – ones that don’t travel as far through the air. That means towers have to be placed right in the middle of where people and devices are actually using wireless services, closer to how Wi-Fi works.
"When you start to think about the 5G networks, yeah, you’re providing a new experience for the mobile devices. But you’re also enabling a new network for IoT and sensors," he said. "Whether it’s parking meters, water meters ... and there’s also fixed wireless. Your 5G service could be 10 to 20 gigabits per second, so you could certainly use that for all your home internet browsing, your video content that you're getting in your home."
Though, as great of a network upgrade as that sounds, not all small cell deployments throughout the country have gone so smoothly thus far.
Complaints of needlessly messy installations have been at the center of some battles by residents to keep the small cell eyesores from filling their neighborhoods. Contractors like Mobilitie and Crown Castle (you can see one of its towers below) say they have upped efforts to improve the look of their equipment. The design I saw in Los Angeles is Mobilitie’s new standard.
"This is kind of our preference of an installation type, because it’s clean and easy to do," Karmis said.
The small cell build-out has also faced public fears about the exposure to radio waves the lower-to-the-ground and more numerous towers could bring, with citizens in Santa Rosa, California, this spring forcing a hold on Verizon’s plans to place 72 of them in the area.
Industry players like Mobilitie maintain that their installations are safe and well within the RF exposure guidelines set by the FCC. And that's good news since the commission itself this year declared strong support for a quick nationwide roll-out of small cells to get 5G up and running in the US as soon as possible – and that means, at some point, your neighborhood.