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Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

AT&T Using $9.7 Million in Public Dollars to Bolster its Cell Towers in South Carolina

AT&T will spend $9.7 million in annual public subsidies to bolster its cell tower network in South Carolina in part to expand its rural wireless broadband program.

The Federal Communications Commission approved the funding, which is expected to cost Americans nearly $10 million annually until 2020 to boost wireless coverage in 20 mostly rural counties in South Carolina to reach an estimated 12,000 new homes and businesses by the end of this year. Nationwide, the company is getting almost $428 million a year to extend access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says.

AT&T plans to spend the money to improve cell towers it already has in place for its mobile phone customers. The company admitted it will rely on existing infrastructure and won’t lay a single new strand of fiber optics. Instead, wireless broadband customers will share space with AT&T’s existing mobile customers on AT&T’s backhaul network.

“Because of the wireless aspect of it and the greater ability to deliver that last-mile connection, it does help to overcome any obstacles that may be in the cost equation,” Hayes said. “This initial build, with it being infrastructure that we have in place with these towers, that comes from years of investment.”

AT&T will also be able to promote its own products and offer customers discounts and free installation when they agree to sign up for other AT&T services. Hayes said the service will cost $60 a month for everyone else, along with a one-time installation fee of $99.

“Because of the wireless aspect of it and the greater ability to deliver that last-mile connection, it does help to overcome any obstacles that may be in the cost equation,” spokesman Daniel Hayes told The Post and Courier. “This initial build, with it being infrastructure that we have in place with these towers, that comes from years of investment.”

AT&T is treating the fixed wireless program, which offers up to 10Mbps service, as an alternative to wiring fiber optics in outer suburban and rural areas.

With taxpayer/ratepayer dollars financing a significant part of the cost, AT&T will have a de facto monopoly in its rural service areas where it has traditionally declined to offer or maintain DSL service or consider fiber optic upgrades, leaving these areas without broadband service until the subsidy program began.

Wall Street Grumbling About Estimated $130 Billion Needed for National 5G Fiber Buildout

Wall Street analysts are warning investors that mobile providers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint will have to spend $130-150 billion on fiber optic cables alone to make 5G wireless broadband a reality in the next 5-7 years.

A new Deloitte study found providers will have to spend a lot of money to deploy next generation wireless service across the United States, money that many may be unwilling to spend.

“5G relies heavily on fiber and will likely fall far short of its potential unless the United States significantly increases its deep fiber investments,” the study notes. “Increased speed and capacity from 5G will rely on higher radio frequencies and greater network densification (i.e., increasing the number and concentration of cell sites and access points).”

Unlike earlier cellular technology, which worked from centralized cell towers that covered several miles in all directions, 5G technology is expected to be deployed through “small cell” antennas attached to utility and light poles with coverage limited to just 300-500 feet. To reach city residents, providers will need countless thousands of new antenna installations and a massive fiber network to connect each antenna to the provider.

Telecom providers seeking financing for such networks will face the same criticism Verizon Communications took from Wall Street over the expense of its FiOS fiber-to-the-home upgrade as well as doubts about the viability of other fiber projects like Google Fiber.

Goldman Sachs told its investors back in 2012 that throwing money at Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS was not going to give them a good return on their investment. That year, Goldman was “Still Bullish on Cable, But Not Blind to the Risks.” That report, written by analyst Jason Armstrong, noted Google’s fiber upgrades would cost billions and only further dilute industry profits from increasing competition.

Goldman Sachs steered investors back to the cable industry, which gets significant praise from Wall Street for its ability to repurpose 20-year-old wired infrastructure for enhanced broadband without having to spend huge sums on a complete system rebuild.

In 2013, Alliance Bernstein continued to slam Google Fiber’s buildout as an unwise business investment:

We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the US, as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business.

For example, making the far from trivial assumption that Google can identify 20 million homes in relatively contiguous areas with (on average) similar characteristics as Kansas City when it comes to the most important drivers of network deployment cost, homes per mile of plant and the mix of aerial, buried and underground infrastructure, and that Google decides to build out a fiber network to serve them over a period of five years, we estimate the [total capital expenditure] investment required to be in the order of $11 billion to pass the homes, before acquiring or connecting a single customer.

Some analysts are even questioning the relevance of 5G when providers investing in the massive fiber expansion required for 5G wireless could simply extend fiber cables directly into homes, assuring customers of more bandwidth and reliability. In many cases, fiber to the home technology is actually cheaper than 5G deployment will be.

VantagePoint released a report in February that called a lot of the excitement surrounding 5G “hype” and cautioned it will not be the ultimate broadband solution:

Undoubtedly, 5G wireless technologies will result in better broadband performance than 4G wireless technologies and will offer much promise as a mobile complement to fixed services, but they still will not be the right choice for delivering the rapidly increasing broadband demanded by thousands or millions of households and businesses across America.

Previous analysis of 4th generation (4G) wireless networks clearly demonstrated how these networks, even with generous capacity assumptions for the future, will have limited broadband capabilities, and inevitably will fail to carry the fixed broadband experience that has been and will be demanded by subscribers accustomed to their wireline counterparts. Although there is understandably much anticipation today about phenomenal possible speeds for 5G wireless networks tomorrow, they will continue to have technical shortcomings that will, like their predecessor wireless networks, render them very useful complements but poor substitutes for wireline broadband. These technical challenges include:

  • Spectral limitations: 5G networks will require massive amounts of spectrum to accomplish their target speeds. At the lower frequencies traditionally used for wide area coverage, there is not enough spectrum. At the very high frequencies proposed for 5G where there may be enough spectrum, the RF signal does not propagate far enough to be practical for any wide area coverage. This is particularly important in rural areas where customer concentration is far, far less than what can be expected in densely populated urban areas where 5G may offer greater promise.
  • Access Network Sharing: This is not a good solution for continuous-bit-rate traffic such as video, which will make up 82% of Internet traffic by 2020.
  • Economics: When compared to a 5G network that can deliver significant bandwidth using very high, very short-haul frequencies, FTTP is often less expensive and will have lower operational costs. This is particularly true when one consider how much fiber deployment will be needed very close to each user even just to enable 5G.
  • Reliability: Wireless inherently is less reliable than wireline, with significantly increased potential for impairments with the very high frequencies required by 5G.

In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP released a report urging telecom executives to shift their thinking about telecom capital spending away from one that focuses on upgrades to deal with increasing traffic and demand and move instead to a hardline view of only spending on projects that meet Return On Investment (ROI) objectives for investors.

“The predominant task of management is to take a considered view of the future, allocate capital towards strategies that maximize value for the providers of that capital, and manage the execution of those strategies through to the delivery of returns for those investors,” wrote PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “For too long, telecoms have been on auto-drive for much of their capex. Departments assume if they had the money last year, they are going to get it again this year, under the premise of increasing traffic. But rarely do telecoms truly analyze that spending for its ROI or ask whether the investment should be made at all.”

In short, if a project is not certain to quickly deliver significant ROI, serious questions should be asked about whether that investment is appropriate to undertake. That reluctance is at the heart of Deloitte’s new study.

Deloitte notes if providers cannot overcome Wall Street’s reluctance to support major spending on fiber infrastructure, lack of investment will be even more costly.

It predicts falling short on fiber deployment will cause a dwindling number of broadband provider choices for consumers. Today, fewer than 33% of U.S. homes have access to fiber broadband and only 39% have the option of choosing more than one provider capable of meeting the FCC’s minimal definition of broadband – 25Mbps. As competition declines, the need to further expand is reduced while prices can freely rise.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP also recommends cable and phone companies partner with content providers like Netflix or Google, and let those companies take an ownership interest in return for capital investments for fiber upgrades. Those type of solutions also protect Wall Street from a feared price war should alternative providers launch in markets that are barely competitive, if at all.

Microsoft’s TV White Space Rural Broadband Solution Expands in America

Microsoft is indirectly getting into the internet access business with its support for white-space wireless internet access for two million rural Americans by 2022.

The project will involve a partnership putting Microsoft’s financing together with rural telecommunications companies that want a rural broadband solution for their customers.

Microsoft has spent at least a decade promoting “white space” wireless broadband, which works over unused UHF TV channels. An internet provider markets the service as a next generation Wi-Fi network, capable of serving customers over a much larger distance than traditional in-home or business Wi-Fi. The service transmits from strategically placed antenna towers that are capable of delivering internet access to dozens of families in an immediate area.

Pilot projects not associated with Microsoft are already up and running in selected rural areas with mixed results. None of the projects have lived up to their pre-launch hype, but most have been a significant improvement over satellite internet access. Speed variability and capacity has proven difficult technical challenges, and finding ongoing financial resources to maintain the wireless network once constructed has also been a challenge.

Rural community politics is never too far away. Thurman, N.Y.’s white space broadband project Stop the Cap! wrote about two years ago has turned into a political football. Only about three dozen residents subscribe to the white space internet service and vocal opponents of the project and controversy over other spending initiatives caused the town’s CEO and one board member to resign. Town meetings have deteriorated into shouting matches as recriminations are fired back and forth. One of the project designers resigned after the town refused to honor an invoice for a cost overrun. The white space project was funded with a grant that required local matching funds. With only a few dozen customers using the service, some taxpayers object to underwriting its expenses.

The technology has not been a runaway success in the U.S., but Microsoft has had better luck funding internet access to 185,000 people in 20 wireless projects, many in the developing world.

Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith today introduced Microsoft’s plan to expand white space internet in the U.S., pointing to a white paper laying out Microsoft’s rural broadband strategy, which will leverage several wireless technologies.

A combination of technologies can substantially reduce the total cost of extending broadband coverage. Specifically, a technology model that uses a combination of the TV white spaces spectrum, fixed wireless, and satellite coverage can reduce the initial capital and operating costs by roughly 80 percent compared with the cost of using fiber cables alone, and by approximately 50 percent compared with the cost of current LTE fixed wireless technology.

One key to deploying this strategy successfully is to use the right technology in the right places. TV white spaces is expected to provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of this underserved rural population, particularly in areas with a population density between two and 200 people per square mile. […] Satellite coverage is expected to be the most cost-effective solution for most areas with a population density of less than two people per square mile, and LTE fixed wireless for most areas with a density greater than 200 people per square mile. This mixed model for expanding broadband coverage will likely bring the total national cost of closing the rural broadband gap to roughly $10 billion.

To cover the costs, Microsoft has agreed to front its own money and recover it later. The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corp. received $250,000 from Microsoft. Another $500,000 originated with the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and another $250,000 came from the telecom company. Mid-Atlantic hopes to expand white space internet access to 1,000 local customers by the end of the year.

Mid-Atlantic today offers residents in Charlotte and Halifax counties, two rural regions in southern Virginia, free internet access to a limited number of education-related sites with speeds of 3-4Mbps. Customers can pay to access the entire web at those speeds for about $10 a month. A premium tier raises speeds to 8-10Mbps for $40 a month. About 90% of subscribers have chosen the free service, an alarming percentage for any company trying to sell internet access and recoup its investment. It currently costs around $1,000 to hook up each customer, a number local officials hope to reduce to $100 eventually.

Microsoft argues the technology is still cheaper than the alternatives – 80 percent less costly than fiber to the home service and half the price of 4G LTE wireless.

To guarantee the technology will work, Microsoft wants to preserve unlicensed frequencies not currently in use by licensed television stations for “white space” broadband.

“The Incentive Auction reduced the number of available channels that can be used for TV white spaces technologies,” Microsoft noted in its white paper. The company is referring to the FCC’s auction of UHF TV licenses, freeing up channels to be repurposed for wireless data expansion by the country’s mobile phone operators. “To make the significant investments necessary to reach economies of scale, potential TV white spaces network operators and device and chip manufacturers have converged on the need for a minimum of three usable TV white spaces channels in every market, with additional TV white spaces available in smaller markets.”

In other words, Microsoft wants the FCC to ensure at least three unused UHF channels in each city in the country are kept available for unlicensed spectrum users, like white space internet. That brought a scathing response from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) who called Microsoft’s request “nonsense on its face”:

The proposal is either unnecessary, because there will be plenty of spectrum, or it is harmful, because there will not be enough. If you were playing musical chairs with someone and he told you, “you must reserve that chair for me, but don’t worry, there are plenty of chairs for everyone,” you would rightly be suspicious. The post-auction repack is essentially a game of musical chairs for displaced low power stations. Microsoft is telling the Commission: (1) it needs to have a chair reserved for unlicensed use, but that (2) there will be no effect from that reservation on anyone else. One of those assertions is untrue.

Microsoft also claims that only the reservation of spectrum can provide the regulatory certainty that Microsoft needs to increase investment in white space technology. But the truth is the Commission just held a lengthy auction of the very spectrum Microsoft claims it so urgently desires. If Microsoft were interested in increasing investment, it had an unprecedented opportunity to get guaranteed access to 600MHz spectrum with a nationwide footprint. Instead, Microsoft is trying to convince the Commission to give Microsoft a backdoor frequency allocation with exclusive access to that spectrum for free, and on better terms than winning auction bidders received.

Certain parts of the northeastern U.S. are signal-crowded, with no available white space channels.

The NAB objects to Microsoft requesting spectrum without directly paying for it, but Microsoft’s actual request is that those frequencies be reserved for unlicensed users of all kinds, not just for white space internet. The NAB accuses Microsoft of potentially increasing interference for licensed TV stations on a newly crowded, repacked UHF dial, a theory that seems unlikely in the most rural parts of the country where over the air television reception is problematic or non-existent. There are urban areas of the country, particularly in the Boston-New York-Washington corridor where open channel space is either not available or severely limited, but white space internet was designed to resolve rural broadband problems, not urban ones.

To find out what is true and what is theoretical Microsoft announced 12 new white space pilot projects in 12 U.S. states, including Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin that will be up and running over the next year. Few details are available about the specific communities involved or the types of access to be offered. Microsoft only said if it gets its way, it could be providing internet access to two million more Americans by July 4, 2022.

Most customers are likely not going to get the FCC’s definition of broadband (25Mbps) from the current generation of white space broadband technology. Speeds are often comparable to DSL and just as variable, depending on reception conditions. The NAB questions whether this technology will really make much difference.

“Microsoft has been making promises about white spaces technology for well over a decade,” the NAB wrote on a blog post, noting it estimates fewer than 300 customers are getting white space internet access in the U.S. “There remain few tangible consumer benefits associated with white spaces deployments across the U.S.”

For states like New York, embarked on their own efforts to achieve 100% broadband penetration, Microsoft’s project may be too little, too late. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo launched the final phase of the New NY Broadband Program in March, seeking to deliver a final round of funding to secure access to high-speed internet for all New Yorkers by the end of 2018, four years sooner than Microsoft’s target date for its project. New York’s rural broadband expansion program relies primarily on incumbent providers and helps subsidize expansion of their networks to reach customers deemed too expensive to serve without supplemental funding.

Communities Prepare for Onslaught of New Wireless Networks in Public Rights-of-Way

Phillip Dampier June 12, 2017 Public Policy & Gov't, Wireless Broadband 1 Comment

AT&T’s idea of a small cell deployment on an existing utility pole in Oakland, Calif. (Image courtesy: Omar Masry, a city planner living in the area, who warns other city planners: “Don’t let this happen to you.”)

Some of America’s biggest wireless telecom companies are spending millions lobbying Washington and state legislatures for the right to place a myriad of new wireless transmitters and small cells in the public rights-of-way without local communities having much say about where they go and what they look like.

Utility Traffic Jam

Over the next five years, tens of thousands of new “small cell” devices are expected to be placed on utility poles to manage forthcoming wireless services, and that represents a conservative estimate. Every major wireless carrier is contemplating new line-of-sight 5G communications networks that will require a massive deployment of new wireless antennas that will serve a smaller audience of devices than traditional cell towers have. But wireless companies will not be alone. Cable operators are also expected to enter the wireless business, not only to resell other providers’ cellular services but also to deploy new low power, line of sight networks to manage the Internet of Things (IoT), which will wirelessly connect devices ranging from home appliances and heating/cooling systems to vehicles on the road, utility meters, shopping carts, for sale and street vendor signs, traffic signals, and much, much more.

It’s an entirely new world for local governments tasked with approving permit requests to place cellular and wireless infrastructure on private and public lands. With billions to be made managing machine-to-machine communications, smart cars, and expanded wireless internet, every player has a vested interest in making sure local governments don’t impede their potential profits.

That is why companies like AT&T are pushing hard for new limitations on local government objections to their sprouting wireless infrastructure. Their idea is to override local control and shift to their proposed statewide or federal guidelines conveniently favoring them by putting time limits on communities to contemplate an application, eliminating certain rights for local governments to object to those applications, and making certain wireless companies don’t have to pay what they consider excessive fees or taxes to local authorities for the right to use the public space.

For local governments, responsiveness to citizens who have to live next to wireless infrastructure is important, and not only because of pseudo-scientific fears of the health impacts of wireless signal radiation. Aesthetic issues alone often make or break current wireless antenna applications.

The POTs and PANs Blog notes that time is short for local communities to get their wireless infrastructure policies in place for the incoming boom of mini-cell sites and IoT networks.

Pole Refrigerators and 100-Foot Fake Pine Trees

Traditional cell towers are easy to spot because they are tall and very visible with wireless antennas often serving multiple carriers fixed up and down across the tower. The next generation of wireless networks will be powered by much smaller antennas attached to utility and light poles. In some cases where nearby trees can block signals, providers propose new 100-foot tall monopoles, sometimes disguised to resemble a tree — albeit a very, very tall one.

Some early generation “small cells” resemble a compact refrigerator and weigh several hundred pounds. These are usually mounted approximately half to two-thirds up a utility pole and are very visible. Some have loud cooling fans, others need additional infrastructure like external power that will busy-up the utility pole with more cables and supports. In a storm strong enough to take out a utility pole, you would not want to be underneath a falling “small cell.”

The Tree Trimming Flat-Top Haircut is Back

Arborists warn that some early 5G installations have taken a serious toll on nearby trees also in the right-of-way because the technology requires a direct line-of-sight to the antenna. This has resulted in aggressive tree-trimming to keep foliage far away from the small cell, and that trimming sometimes includes reducing the height of nearby trees.

A University of Surrey study found that small cells mounted 10 meters up a pole faced at least a 30% chance of having their signals blocked by trees. At 15 meters, that chance of signal blockage is reduced to 10%. At 25 meters, it is less than 1%. But that would require an 82-foot high utility pole in the neighborhood. The standard utility pole in the United States is about 40 ft (12 m) long. Either aggressive tree trimming or tall utility pole placement to avoid trimming is likely to create controversy in suburban residential neighborhoods.

City planners are being urged to contemplate what kind of enforceable policies they want to permit in the public space set aside for infrastructure, because as author Doug Dawson noted, it’s going to get busy up there:

I doubt that any city is prepared for the possible proliferation of wireless devices. Not only are there four major cellular companies, but these devices are going to be deployed by the cable companies that are now entering the cellular market along with a host of ISPs that want to deliver wireless broadband. There will also be significant demand for placement for connecting private networks as well as for the uses by the cities themselves. I remember towns fifty years ago that had unsightly masses of telephone wires. Over the next decade or two it’s likely that we will see wireless devices everywhere.

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