DENVER -- Unlike previous Gs, 5G is decidedly local.
That's why the wireless industry's main trade group, the CTIA, is taking its message on the road, getting out of its Washington, DC, headquarters and hosting events around the country to discuss how the technology is developing at a local level.
That's important because 5G is different from 4G, 3G and other wireless generations. Whereas 3G and 4G required only a handful of big cell towers to broadcast a signal across a major metro area, 5G is likely going to require many, many more transmission sites (generally called small cells). That's partly due to the nature of the technology (a bunch of smaller cell sites can handle more traffic than one big cell site) and partly due to the fact that 5G works in new spectrum bands that can't transmit signals very far (so operators will need to install more sites that are closer together to cover a whole city).
Regardless, the result is that wireless network operators like Verizon and AT&T, along with their vendors, are being forced to fight a neighborhood-by-neighborhood battle to install 5G transmitters on top of structures such as street lights and traffic signals (places that have access to power and fiber connections).
To install these transmitters, companies first need permission from the city councils that oversee this so-called "street furniture."
"Some cities have really embraced this project," said Daniel Feldman, managing director of strategy and network partnership development for Verizon, noting that both San Diego and Long Beach, Calif., recently signed on to Verizon's 5G small cell buildout effort. Other cities have thrown up obstacles to the deployment of additional 5G architecture, he said.
"I would encourage all cities to work as closely with the carriers as possible," he added.
Verizon and other operators in January received some federal backing for their 5G efforts: New FCC regulations essentially require cities to move quickly on small cell installation applications and prevent charging permitting fees above a set amount. Already some wireless companies -- including Verizon -- are suing cities for moving too slowly in adopting the federal guidelines.
5G a mile high
The CTIA's 5G roadshow includes stops in Houston, Denver, Minneapolis and Indianapolis -- cities that also boast some of the nation's earliest 5G deployments. At the association's event here in Denver, state and local officials shared a press conference stage with executives from CTIA, Verizon and Dish Network to talk about how the technology could transform major metro areas -- and why it's causing problems for some city officials around the country.
"The way we live is fundamentally different than even just a little over a decade ago," explained Phil Weiser, Colorado's attorney general and a longtime player in the telecommunications industry. He said that smartphones and high-speed wireless networks have "radically transformed" the way people meet each other and get around, and even the way they decide where to eat.
And 5G could change things even further, he said. "We're still at the early innings" of this cultural change, he explained.
But David Edinger, Denver's CIO, acknowledged that Denver and other cities must work through the small cell permitting process -- a daunting task considering it will require officials to evaluate hundreds or even thousands of small cell installations to make sure they aren't duplicative, they won't disturb residents, and that they won't be an eyesore.
"I want us to be out ahead of this issue," Weiser said of small cells.
Denver's Edinger agreed. He said small cell aesthetics are a big problem for cities, and argued that the permitting process should encourage "good hygiene" by requiring companies to remove old equipment while installing new equipment.
But he said that an even bigger issue is the fear that some Americans have about the health effects of 5G. "We're hearing about that like crazy at the city," he said. "There are those concerns out there."
Weiser said that cities must respond to those concerns with hard data. Importantly, the FCC just this summer announced that it won't change its guidelines around RF exposure. FCC officials specifically said that 5G does not pose a health risk.
Nonetheless, Americans around the country continue to raise concerns about the effect that 5G transmitters might have on nearby residents -- concerns exacerbated by Russian propaganda, according to a New York Times report. City officials have been left to attempt to quell those concerns while they move to address small cell installation applications.
Optimism for the future
That said, many of the speakers at the CTIA's event here spoke in glowing terms of the benefits that 5G might be able to provide at some point in the future. For example, Denver's Edinger said that roughly 20% of the traffic in downtown Denver is simply due to people driving around looking for a parking space. He said it isn't "rocket science" to imagine a system that could identify open spaces and direct nearby motorists to them.
He also said that traffic along Colorado Avenue -- a major thoroughfare through the city -- can slow to a crawl during the evening commute if even one police car or ambulance turns its sirens on. He said a traffic system with access to emergency vehicles and traffic lights could potentially both ease congestion and direct emergency vehicles to their destination more quickly. "Those are some of the things I'm super-excited about," he said.
When questioned about the most exciting aspects of 5G, Verizon's Feldman said he's looking forward to virtual reality experiences, including being able to watch a football game from the perspective of the quarterback. Meanwhile, Dish's Tom Cullen said he's anticipating how 5G might revolutionize a variety of industrial functions.
It's worth noting that both Feldman's and Cullen's comments align directly with their companies' respective 5G strategies.