The Rush to 5G

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Washington, D.C., is becoming so smart — 5G network smart, that is. We are already well into the planning stages to support the next generation of 5-plus-gigabit networks, which are projected to increase U.S. internet traffic sevenfold. Billions of new connected mobile devices will be, like the Olympic motto, Faster, Higher, Stronger, able to connect to the“internet of things” and transmit 8K-resolution video, augmented reality and virtual reality. D.C. is rushing to prepare for all this promised connectivity and prosperity. Five companies have already been licensed to propose infrastructure plans for the new 5G technology.

But there is a secret to being 5G smart. It turns out that while 5G can accommodate 4G technology on a basic level, full connectivity will require a completely different infrastructure — one built on smaller, denser configurations of shoebox-size antennae, many of which will be attached to existing buildings, streetlights and utility poles. An estimated 300,000 small cell connectors will be needed in the next three to four years to support the transition to 5G. That’s ten to 100 times more antenna locations than are used for today’s 3G and 4G devices. When they are built, no current computer or mobile device will work on the new networks. All will have to be replaced or updated.

On Sept. 13, a packed town hall meeting was held at Georgetown’s City Tavern Club to review preliminary sketches of proposed small cell infrastructure plans by some of the licensees. They urged an expedited community-approved decision in order to get a head start on attaching the boxes throughout the residential and commercial neighborhoods of D.C., and doing it without onerous regulations, fees or potential enforcement fines. The mobile device industry calls this “forward thinking.” The city calls it “smart.”

But Georgetown’s ANC Chairman Joe Gibbons and Commissioner Jim Wilcox are smarting. Our community has grave aesthetic and health concerns about the small cell infrastructure plans we’ve seen to date, they write, citing the conclusion of Bain & Company consulting group in a Sept. 10 Financial Times article that “the majority of the 19 largest global phone companies don’t even see a near term business use for 5G technology as yet.”

“One might speculate that providers are using the strong interest their lobbyists have generated in 5G, primarily to reduce their costs and to establish permanent placeholders in public spaces for the eventual technologies of the future,” write Gibbons and Wilcox.

It seems so easy. The smart city embraces the inevitable 5G technology and enables five licensees to present their plans for community input. Just choose one — the prettiest, maybe. Guidelines and regulations can be designed to fit them. Then build. Easy. Smart.

Too easy and too smart, we think. It seems that the technology of the 5G phones and the infrastructure are not nearly ready for such final decisions. In D.C.’s eagerness to be a smarttech city, we have to be smarter than that.

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