Update: Deployment of ‘Small Cells’ in Georgetown

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5G and 4G hardware on tower. Courtesy Verizon.

Lately, Georgetown residents have been hearing a lot about “5G” and “small cells.” The following is meant to explain these terms and related concerns.
First, exactly what are “small cells”?

Small cells are cellular service transmission nodes being proposed by Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile/Sprint and Crown Castle (not a carrier, but a real estate investment trust or REIT). They are being proposed to make the current generation of cellular service faster and more reliable by increasing capacity of our current fourth generation — 4G — telecommunications technology. Many carriers are marketing this as next-generation, that is, 5G service; only Verizon has fessed up that this is actually improved 4G service.

Industry standards for 5G do not yet exist. But, so what? Improved service sounds beneficial. What’s the big deal?

The “big deal” is the size of the small cells. The ones being proposed consist of new metal poles, erected on our sidewalks in the zone already occupied by tree boxes and streetlights (and, in some instances, alleys).

The diameter and height of the poles, radios and antennas vary by carrier. The designs presented in mid-2018 and after depict metal poles with a height in the range of 20 to 30 feet above grade, with a diameter of 8 to 26 inches. The bases will house radios that range from 20 to 28 inches in diameter by 18 to 60 inches in height.

Antennas and radio transmitters will be mounted on them. The 4G antennas depicted in renderings have been doughnut- and cylinder-shaped, in the range of 18 to 24 inches in diameter by 31 to 56 inches in height. 5G antennas are purportedly larger.

The design of small cells is not uniform. The reason for the range of dimensions described above is that the shape and size of the antenna and radio equipment varies by carrier. The District Department of Transportation is developing guidelines that establish parameters for design, which so far have been limited to pole heights and color.

When 5G does arrive, sometime in 2020 according to forecasts, it will not work on any existing radios or antennas. And our current devices, compatible with 4G, will not work with real 5G either. The carriers realize that many people are not going to ditch their current phones, so they are planning to continue to offer both 4G and 5G, at least for a while.

The specialized 5G radios and antennas will be added to the 4G-equipped small cells, the quantities and locations of which have not been communicated. The carriers have contracts to lease public space from DDOT for a one-time fee of $270, good for 10 years. So these small cells potentially could add a lot of unsightly clutter to our sidewalks and may impact the views out our windows.

That is why the Citizens Association of Georgetown has become a small cells activist. We first began informing CAG members about small cells and the challenges they pose last summer. Additional information was shared in our fall newsletter and at a very well-attended town hall meeting sponsored by CAG, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2E and the Georgetown Business Improvement District.

Since that time, I and my CAG colleagues Richard deC. Hinds and Betsy Emes, along with ANC 2E Chair Joe Gibbons and Commissioner Jim Wilcox, attended and provided testimony at DDOT’s public space meeting and at a citywide roundtable organized by Council member Mary Cheh. We continue to stay in touch with representatives from the Commission of Fine Arts, Council members and other interested organizations in the city, as well as telecom company representatives.

Our objectives are to reduce the potential visual clutter on our lovely historic streetscape, yet allow our fellow residents to reap benefits from the promised improved service. As such we have recommended that carriers:

1. Explore alternative means of providing 4G and 5G service, such as rooftop-based antennas and antennas beneath manhole covers. Vodafone UK is installing small antennas below street level, under manhole covers, to help improve its 4G LTE mobile network coverage in busy urban areas and prepare for 5G.

2. Mitigate visual clutter by reducing the number of small cells to a minimum. If the coverage area of small cells is as wide-ranging as has been touted by Verizon’s chairman, that would result in lessening the number of small cells per block.

3. Develop a single pole design that all carriers must use uniformly throughout our historic district.

4. Agree not to place poles close to tree roots or trim our tree canopy.

Elsa Santoyo is chair of Historic Preservation & Zoning for the Citizens Association of Georgetown.

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