Utilities, Telcos in 5G Street Light Fight
Big wireless network operators like AT&T and Verizon are hungrily eying your neighborhood street light as the perfect home for their 5G small cell transmitters. After all, those light poles already offer a reliable source of electricity, and they’re often located in just the right place to push 5G signals into your home or office.
There’s just one big problem: The street light might fall over if the small cell is too heavy.
“The vast majority of street lights are not structurally capable of supporting wireless communications facilities, thus requiring the complete replacement of the street light structure in order to accommodate wireless,” Xcel and Southern Company — two of the nation’s biggest utilities — wrote in a filing to the FCC on the topic.
At least, that’s one of the central arguments that utility companies like Xcel and Southern Company are citing in their intensifying battle with the US wireless market over 5G and small cells.
Of course, if you ask the wireless industry, the real problem here boils down to money.
“Many utilities charge a premium for access to utility-owned light poles or deny access altogether,” Verizon wrote in its own filing with the FCC on the topic.
For example, the wireless industry’s main trade group said that an unnamed Hawaiian electric utility levied a 100x surcharge for small cells installed on street light poles instead of electricity distribution poles.
“Access to light poles is crucial to wireless infrastructure deployment in some locations,” Verizon wrote, reiterating the operator’s overall need to “satisfy consumer demand and to ensure that the United States leads the world in 5G.”
Although the street light fight between these two massive industries is still in its early stages, it yet again underscores the difficulties that wireless network operators face in finding physical locations for their 5G transmitters. And the battle demonstrates operators’ mandate to reduce 5G buildout costs.
5G siting challenges
At the heart of the new battle between the wireless industry and the utility industry is “siting” for 5G equipment. Although there are already around 200,000 macro cell towers (often 100 feet tall or more) spread out across the country, wireless network operators are looking to supplement those sites with up to 800,000 additional “small cell” sites. Small cells, which are roughly the size of a pizza box and generally work 15-30 feet off the ground, act like mini cell towers and can sit on top of buildings, traffic signals or, in some cases, street lights.
Small cells are critical to 5G. They can “split” a macro coverage area into smaller coverage areas, which allows operators to support more users with faster speeds without buying more spectrum. And, perhaps more importantly, small cells are essential for 5G in millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum, which is where operators like Verizon and AT&T are focusing their 5G efforts. Transmissions in mmWave spectrum can’t travel more than a few thousand feet, which means that macro cell towers can’t be used for mmWave 5G because they’re usually located several miles apart, even in crowded downtown areas.