Cellphone companies are on the verge of developing a faster network known as 5G. Currently, the District, and most other populated areas in the country, use 4G, which relies on large cell towers that are often out of the way or that blend into their industrial surroundings. These towers are typically spaced about 1-2 miles apart in suburban areas and 1/4 – 1/2 miles apart in densely populated urban areas.
5G, as it is currently being developed, uses shorter wave lengths than 4G and therefore does not have as expansive a range as 4G. The shorter wave lengths are more likely to be hindered by buildings, nature, and atmospheric conditions. Because of this, 5G antennas must be placed around every few hundred feet in an urban environment. These antennas are much smaller than those on 4G cellular towers. The 5G antennas, known as “small cells,” will be placed on lampposts, free-standing poles, and other urban infrastructure.
This is an exciting time in the District’s technological evolution. Cellular companies have identified the District as one of their priority areas in employing 5G and are working on making the District one of the first cities in the country with a fully integrated 5G network. Of course, in placing 5G small cells around the city, unique challenges will arise. We want to fully understand the balance between bringing cutting-edge technology to the District, while still protecting DC’s infrastructure.
By way of context, let me explain how the process of getting small cells placed around the District works. First, before a telecom company can install any small cells, it must submit and have executed a Master License Agreement (“MLA”) with the District. The MLA governs many aspects of small cell infrastructure and is a standardized document that does not allow modification or alteration by or for individual MLA participants. In and of itself, the MLA does not permit the installation of any small cells, it is a preliminary step in the process, which then allows the MLA holder to submit applications with DDOT for public space permits to install small cells.
Once an entity has an MLA in place, they then submit public space permits with DDOT. All applications are reviewed to ensure adherence both to the guidelines, which are currently being created by DDOT, and all other applicable standards, regulations, and laws. When a telecom company applies to place a small cell in the District that is not in adherence with the guidelines, they are required to notify the ANC and the council member of that ward. The ANC and the council member cannot approve or disapprove of an application, but can review and comment on it. The Public Space Committee within DDOT determines whether to approve an application that is not in adherence with the guidelines.
Verizon and AT&T, the two biggest cellular networks in the country, estimate that together they will need around 300-500 small cells around the District. Combined with other networks, including Sprint and T-Mobile, the District would install around 3,000 small cell poles, in many instances they can use the District’s existing light poles, rather than build new freestanding poles. Today, the District has approximately 71,000 light poles in use and Verizon has stated that 85-90% of its small cells will be able to go on existing poles. If an existing pole is not strong enough to hold up the light and the small cell at the same time, Verizon has said they will pay to replace the pole with a replica that is stronger.
An added obstacle for us is the federal government. The FCC’s Sept. 26 ruling sets the rates at which local governments can charge telecom companies to lease the space required for small cells and severely hamstrings our ability to put specific requirements on the telecom companies, such as forcing them to put certain technological parts of the infrastructure underground. The FCC’s ruling also sets a clock of 60 or 90 days, depending on the time of installation, for local officials to approve or reject installation requests from local carriers. This is troublesome as it is conceivable that many hundred installation requests may come in at the same time, overwhelming local offices with the volume of requests, requiring a short turnaround. In other words, the FCC’s ruling gives the federal government the power to decide how these local issues will play out, not the District.
Mary Cheh is the Ward 3 member of the D.C. Council. She chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. Cheh offered these opening remarks at a committee roundtable on 5G on Nov. 19, 2018.