Providence prepares for 5G roll-out with ‘small cells’

For Providence, RI residents’ access to 5G service could literally be right around the corner, writes the Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson.

Currently, mobile phone companies are preparing for the 5G rollout by placing thousands of small radio transmitters similar to Verizon’s three-foot cylinder that resides on a local Providence streetlight.

Known as “small cells”, these transmitters service as a reduced size version of the cell towers people have become accustomed to. They have quickly become wireless carriers’ preferred way to boost their mobile networks, particularly in densely populated areas like stadiums. The small cells will help expand current 4G LTE networks, which currently provide a majority of cellular service. They’re also expected to play a key role when a new 5G network becomes available.Small-Cells-AH-5

The small cells have made their way into Providence because the state’s lawmakers want to be on the front of the line, if not first in line, when 5G service is readily available. A bill has already been passed that will standardize and streamline local permitting of small cells across Rhode Island. Telecom companies will now have an easier time building there.

The bill also limits how much cities can charge phone companies to lease space on utility poles owned by their respective municipalities, street lights and similar structures. The maximum is $150 per location annually. There’s also a 180 day deadline for every permit to be approved.

“This is an effort going on nationally, being negotiated in every state as we are speaking,” Senator Louis DiPalma (Democrat, Middletown), who introduced the “Small Cell Siting” bill told the Providence Journal. “It’s unclear when the applications, vendors, software and hardware that need it will be ready, but when they are, those states who have (streamlined permitting) will get it first.”

Since 5G systems will require higher-frequency signals than 4G currently does, more transmitters that are closer together and small cells will be needed for it to work. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza saw an opportunity and purchased more than 16,000 streetlights from National Grid last year. His plan was to lease the streetlights to wireless providers to bring in more revenue.

His purchase saw him oppose the original House version of the small cell bill, which had a lower per location yearly fee ($50) and the deadline for permit approval was only 60 days. Eventually $150 per cell was agreed on as a compromise.

Now that small cells have been approved, the big question is when will the improved cellular service will be made available to Rhode Island residents.

Currently, there’s no concrete start date for 5G service. Verizon spokesman Chris McCann explained the carrier already has a 5G home Internet pilot going in eight out of state markets. Next steps will be announced by the end of 2017. 5G phone service however is further out; McCann sees that process beginning at the end of the decade. Instead companies are using small cells to improve 4G service.

“4G will be around for a long time,” McCann told the Providence Journal. “5G will not just replace it; it is an evolution. A lot of things that will bulk up 4G with densification will support 5G.”

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