Little Boxes Everywhere

5G technology will bring challenges for local government all the way down to the neighborhood level.
August 26, 2019 AT 4:00 AM
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Techies are salivating over the promise of 5G, the telecommunications system of the future. Its promoters suggest amazing innovations—doctors performing surgeries from command consoles hundreds of miles from the operating room; fleets of trucks zooming down interstate highways without drivers to guide them; drones dropping groceries onto far-flung doorsteps with pinpoint accuracy -- that are convenient for buyers if confusing, perhaps, for neighborhood dogs.

Hundreds of communities are betting that the economic future will belong to whoever gets there first with 5G. For those communities’ governments, however, 5G is a mega-challenge: how to win the long-term economic race while negotiating local battles over what these systems will actually look like.

Cities and towns are used to big confrontations over installing cellphone towers, but the 5G controversies will be different. The towers we use now, for the 4G system connecting our mobile phones, can send signals for miles. The 5G signals can provide much faster speeds and much larger capacity, but they travel just hundreds of feet. They can use much smaller “towers,” some the size of a backpack. But 5G will need many, many more of them, perhaps a million new mini-towers altogether.

In urban areas, this is going to mean hanging them everywhere. Streetlights and traffic signals are about to sprout new boxes on almost every block. That’s already led to fierce “you’re going to put that where?” battles, along with state-versus-local struggles for control, as Governing’s Mike Maciag reported last year.

In addition, connecting the mini-towers to the internet will require thick cables, and the cables will require links to enormous new networks of underground fiber-optic lines—cables with insulated glass strands that can carry signals at super-high speeds over very long distances.

Deloitte, the consulting firm, thinks that the nation will need to invest $130 billion to $150 billion in new fiber-optic cables. In many communities, that’s going to require a lot of digging. An industry group estimates that installing enough fiber-optic lines for just the 25 largest cities in the country will require 1.4 million miles of cable. Those with long memories will recall the disruption that the installation of much smaller amounts of fiber-optic cable caused at the dawn of internet-to-home connections in the 1990s.

There’s an undeniable attraction to smart cities, smart homes, smartphones, smart cars, smart thermostats, smart doorbells and smart diapers (yes, there really is such a thing, just in case a baby’s cry isn’t signal enough to parents). But will most of us want the burden that all of this will bring to the nation’s streets? Attorney Gerard Lavery Lederer, who’s representing some communities in a suit against the Federal Communications Commission about who will control the installation, told a Wall Street Journal reporter, “The real onslaught has not yet begun.”

The onslaught will include a blizzard of disruptions as construction crews dig up miles and miles of roads and yards. There will be contentious arguments in neighborhoods that don’t want the disruption but also don’t want to be left behind. And there will be intense rivalries in states and localities over who gets to call the shots, as telecoms like Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile/Sprint compete for market share.

Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Technologies, said earlier this year that he was “giddy with excitement” about 5G. He and other information technologists may be excited in large part because they don’t really know what changes 5G will bring. After all, no one really knew the transformation that smartphones would yield—from the office-in-a-pocket to worries that late night mobile phone use would rob teenagers of sleep.

The emerging public works debates in every community plug in to a global policy battle. China’s Huawei is promising low prices and great customer service to help countries launch their 5G systems. Germany has signed on with the company, despite powerful pressure from the Trump administration, which fears that Huawei will use its equipment for cyberspying. The administration and American telecoms are also concerned about competition and losing market share. The United Kingdom has tried to travel an uneasy middle road between American pressure to ban Huawei and Germany’s closer partnership.

About the only certainty is this: Unlike many global struggles, this one will be in full view on street corners all over America. There already are serious concerns that 5G will favor larger communities with big concentrations of users. For places without a front seat in the contest, the implications could be serious. So that not-so-pretty box will play a big role in defining America’s place in the 21st century—something we don’t know we need but soon won’t be able to live without.