Yves Herman/Reuters

The next generation of wireless internet needs lots of new equipment in public spaces. The federal government just limited what cities can do about that, and mayors say they’re prepared to fight back.

This week, four U.S. cities are getting their first taste of the next generation of wireless internet. Verizon began rolling out its 5G residential service on Monday in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, bringing this superfast wireless broadband to customers for the first time. But it arrives just as local governments find their hands tied at governing how these networks—and all the equipment they require—will fit into their communities.

That’s because, on Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission restricted cities’ ability to regulate 5G infrastructure. Under the new rules, local governments face tight deadlines to approve or reject the installation of this new cellular equipment. The rules also put limits on how much money cities can charge wireless firms for the privilege of putting hardware in public rights of way.

This is no small move. The 5G buildout will require massive amounts of new gear, and the installation and approval process has already proven contentious in many places. The U.S. Conference of Mayors was quick to criticize the FCC’s move as a breach of local authority and suggest it will turn to the courts for resolution.

“The [FCC] has embarked on an unprecedented federal intrusion into local (and state) government property rights that will have substantial and continuing adverse impacts on cities and their taxpayers,” U.S. Conference of Mayors CEO Tom Cochran said in statement. “The Conference and its members now look to the federal courts to review and rectify this unlawful taking of local property.”

The dispute comes down to the “small cell” equipment required for much of 5G and who gets to say where it goes. Small cell sites can be as compact as a pizza box and are typically installed on utility poles or buildings. 5G technology, in turn, delivers wireless internet access at least five times faster and more responsive than today’s 4G networks—but 5G’s best performance limits it to the shortest range.

While a 4G cell site might cover a dozen city blocks, 5G’s fastest, millimeter-wave frequencies might need one site for each block. An Accenture study commissioned by the wireless trade group CTIA estimated in March that there would be 769,000 small-cell deployments in the U.S. from 2018 to 2026. In a separate report, CTIA estimated that the U.S. had 323,448 cell sites in service at the end of 2017.

“What we have is a lot of small cells getting deployed in numbers that localities have never seen before,” Wireless Infrastructure Association president and CEO Jonathan Adelstein said. And it’s not just the cell sites that have to be installed. Each one will also need fast, wired broadband in the ground. “To have true 5G, you need to have fiber or better.”

Broadly speaking, city leaders want this technology. It’s seen as a crucial foundation for smart-city initiatives, connected cars, and other elements of the “internet of things.” But they’ve raised concerns about the size, shape, and even weight of the new gear.

Telecom companies, meanwhile, are eager to provide 5G services, but have worried that their plans could be ground down if they have to fight block by block, city by city, to navigate local rules, rent-seeking government demands, and junk-science fears among the public. These logistical hurdles have created a long-simmering battle, leading up to the FCC’s decision last week.

Fortunately, telecom firms say their new equipment reaches farther than first expected. Mike Haberman, a Verizon vice president of network engineering, said in an email that tests showed mm-wave 5G delivering gigabit speeds from “up to 2,000 feet” from a cell tower, far better than the “several hundred feet” the carrier had predicted.

But even something the size of a pizza box can stand out on a utility pole or a building, especially a historic one. In 2017, the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, balked at a Verizon plan to add 44 small cell sites around town. It fought Verizon’s contractor, Crown Castle, in court for a year and a half, and negotiated a settlement that cuts the site build-out to 34 units, with additional measures to hide them from sight. In the bargain, Doylestown will get 5 percent of the revenue generated from some of these sites.

Crown Castle didn’t say if Doylestown’s 5G coverage would suffer from this reduction, only commenting in a statement that “each municipality has its own unique characteristics and specific customer needs.”

The FCC’s September 26 vote, however, sharply constrains local governments’ ability to cut deals like Doylestown’s. Under the new rules, cities have just 90 days to approve or reject small-cell-site applications, and can only charge providers for the costs of processing applications and managing deployments in the public rights of way. An earlier set of rules approved in March says 5G small cell sites aren’t subject to the same environmental and historic-preservation processes as standard-sized sites.

For an example of a more amicable approach to 5G, look to Sacramento. Early on, the city formed a public-private partnership to help Verizon build a network that would support its own smart-city services.

“I think the first thing we were kind of looking at was infrastructure—whether we could support it,” said Natasha Greer, the city’s project manager for that partnership. She cited such concerns as the amount of room available in the underground conduits that carry network cables.

But permits and the personnel needed to handle them became a sticking point, too.

“I don’t think that anybody was prepared for the onslaught of what would need to happen to get this done with expedited permitting,” she said. “There were a lot of returns on these permits. That slowed down the process a lot in the beginning.”

The city finally had staffers sit down with Verizon representatives to develop “a clean, gold-standard process” that the company and its contractors could follow.

Greer said the city also had to develop a new tracking system to cope with this scale.

Sacramento’s reward for this effort will be public services delivered on the roughly 200 miles of fiber that Verizon is building out. Free WiFi will come to 27 parks, broadband will link more public schools, and cameras and sensors linked to Verizon’s cloud analytics will support Sacramento’s Vision Zero goal to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries.

Sacramento and other California municipalities retained a little more leverage over 5G buildouts when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last year that would have imposed simpler statewide standards on small-cell site installations.

That has allowed a few California cities to fight 5G far more aggressively. For instance, the Marin County town of Mill Valley voted in early September to ban new sites in residential-zoned areas—not because they might be ugly, but because of fears over their electromagnetic fields. (Repeated studies have yet to surface evidence of any such health hazards for humans.)

Having no announced 5G strategy at all, however, may represent the biggest risk for cities facing 5G. For example, Alexandria, Virginia, might seem an obvious candidate for early 5G preparations—it’s one of the many places in America that has only one company providing fast residential broadband, yet the stringent historic-preservation rules in its Old Town neighborhood will complicate any efforts to break that monopoly via 5G. The city, however, has yet to engage in discussions with carriers over 5G, spokesman Craig Fifer said.

Telecom carriers will surely show up there and elsewhere with PowerPoint presentations soon enough. Municipalities need to be ready with their own wish lists, and they need to keep their constituents looped in on progress. As Sacramento’s Greer put it: “We’re trying to be as transparent and proactive in informing people as we can.”

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