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Cities Seek Workaround for High Cost of 5G

5G wireless networks could accelerate the smart city revolution. But the technology's hefty price tag has meant few takers so far.

Sacramento expects to soon be the first city in the nation with commercially available 5G telecommunications networking. City officials see big promise in the emerging technology.

“Smart city stuff, IoT, autonomous vehicles: We will use it for all of those things,” said CIO and IT Director Maria MacGunigal

Yet MacGunigal isn’t primarily focused on the whiz-bang municipal impact of 5G.

“The use cases will change 100 times,” she predicted. “What we do know is that we will need the infrastructure, so we want to build it and build it well. The infrastructure is what needs to be strong.” 

Nationwide, IT leaders in state and local government are following a similar trajectory. They’re stoking enthusiasm for the promise of 5G: a bigger, faster, more reliable network built to empower a coming wave of connected-everything. At the same time, they’re taking a sober look at infrastructure requirements, seeking a path forward that is financially viable and technically feasible.

Along with increased bandwidth, 5G networks promise speed and reliability, with network latency reduced from about 50 milliseconds to one. Because 5G would operate in the high-frequency spectrum, between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, signal would travel across hundreds or thousands of small cells, often attached to telephone poles and light posts, rather than relying on dozens of big cell towers. As described in IEEE Spectrum, small cells would be placed every 250 meters across a city, forming a dense urban network for efficient, uninterrupted signal relay.

“This radically different network structure should provide more targeted and efficient use of spectrum,” IEEE predicts. Traffic-signaling techniques such as “beamforming” (which concentrates Wi-Fi signals to improve signal strength) could identify the most efficient route for data delivery, reducing interference and bolstering network efficiency. 

All these technical enhancements could open up a range of game-changing use cases for municipal IT leaders. In a world of connected devices, 5G’s speed, bandwidth and super-low latency could help shape vehicle traffic flow in real time. It could enable interconnected sensors to report on the status of infrastructure elements, or leverage the full potential of real-time video in emergencies.

“As we move to the IoT area, anything that has streaming video or large amounts of data transfer will benefit from 5G,” said San Jose Chief Innovation Officer Shireen Santosham

“We are in the heart of Silicon Valley and we have many of the autonomous vehicle companies here,” said Santosham. “5G can be very useful to them in terms of vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity.” 

Unlike previous telecom networking schemes, the 5G specs were drawn up with connected devices as a prime consideration. This means, for example, that the network is optimized to prolong the battery life of IoT devices, which could be a boon for municipal IT executives looking to roll out smart city solutions.

“If you are a municipality trying to deploy sensors and you don’t want to change batteries more than every five or 10 years, then power consumption becomes important,” said Dileep Srihari, senior policy counsel and director of government affairs for the Telecommunications Industry Association. 

The power-management standards are part of a bigger picture. Unlike previous iterations, the 5G network has standards — for example, around network security.

“There has been a lot more thought put into this than has happened before,” Srihari said. “Consumers might not draw on this so much, but for state and local government, this becomes extremely important.” 

A standards-based approach gives state and local government some assurance that their 5G investments will lead them in the right direction.

“In 2G and 3G, you couldn’t forecast what the carriers were going to do; you couldn’t know whether future networks would be affordable or stable,” said Scott Nelson, chief product officer and vice president of product at IoT provider Digi International. “5G stabilizes your business decisions. For the first time, the carriers have laid out a road map, giving a clear forward-looking view. Having standards means you can reduce cost and increase flexibility.” 

All this sounds promising: Standards help deliver more bandwidth and more stability as well as the promise of real-time communication across a broad spectrum of connected devices. That’s 5G in a nutshell, and while municipal IT chiefs are excited about the potential, they acknowledge that getting there may still be a long and winding road.

While other carriers can compete to enter the 5G market in Sacramento, the city’s strategic partnership with Verizon clearly was key to its rapid adoption timetable.

“They are building out the fiber-optic network and we get a piece of some of that, with things like connected intersections,” MacGunigal said. “They also provide us with smart city solutions. In return, we provide them with reduced or deferred lease rates for streetlight attachments and a streamlined development process.” 

Looking ahead, many see this cooperative approach as a key element in future municipal 5G implementations. Where some describe a competitive situation — with carriers and cities vying for control of key assets — others say that a spirit of cooperation will likely yield better results for all concerned.

As Sacramento’s partner on the telecom side, Verizon says it is equally invested in the cooperation narrative. The company sees an opportunity to partner with cities in helping them achieve some of their objectives with the deployment of smart community solutions, while also deploying the backbone that’s required for a whole array of added solutions that will benefit from 5G in the future, according to Sean Harrington, Verizon’s vice president of City Solutions. 

Harrington acknowledges that cities and carriers don’t always start out on the same page: In his view, municipalities may over-rate the commercial value of their lampposts. But he also talks up the value of honest dialog around these issues. 

“Some cities may have higher expectations around what they think the value is of the assets that they have, and we want to take those expectations into account, while also thinking about the realities of our business,” he said. “It really is a partnership: Here are our objectives, tell us your objectives. We have a bunch of tools in our toolkit. Let’s put those pieces together.” 

Some telecom industry advocates go a step further, urging cities to rein in their ambitions. “People should be focused on reasonable cost recovery. If you are talking $6,000 or $10,000 fees to put one small cell on one lamppost, that’s not reasonable. And we have seen that: There are all sorts of crazy practices,” TIA's Srihari said. “The industry is very concerned about this. There is no opposition to reasonable cost recovery, but we do need to change the paradigm to recognize that these are not gigantic towers. If you charge these kinds of fees, you will slow down deployment. Carriers won’t want to come.” 

San Jose's Santosham sees plenty of room for compromise. “There is a narrative in the space right now that says cities are the problem and are getting in the way of deployment because of overly burdensome regulations. The reality is, I don’t know a city that doesn’t want broadband,” she said. “They really want this technology and are looking for ways to work with the carriers. There is mutual interest here. Our role in government is to make sure we get those deployments in a way that is equitable and in the best interests of our residents.” 

It isn’t all about the money, either. In the run-up to 5G, IT leaders must think not just about the monetization of lampposts, but also about more fundamental infrastructure questions, and some in government say they are waiting for industry to take the lead. 

As IT executives wait for those new models to emerge, they can still lay the groundwork for 5G by considering internal issues. 

“You need to look at your processes about how you want to lease, what your design standards are, how you will provide electricity. All those things are really important,” Sacramento’s MacGunigal said. “We have more than 40,000 streetlights but only 9,000 are appropriate for attachment, so you need to have a really good asset inventory in order to understand that.” 

With that asset inventory in hand, it may be possible to find ways to leverage carrier investments for maximum municipal benefits. In simple terms, cities may want to hang sensors on those same lampposts where carriers want to install small cells.