City, Telecom Companies Working to Disguise 5G Equipment Downtown

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JJ Velasquez / Rivard Report

A small-cell antenna is attached to a traffic light pole on South Alamo Street.

5G wireless is on its way to San Antonio. But unlike past generations of communications infrastructure consisting of cellular towers every few miles, 5G will be much more embedded into the urban environment. So the City is working with 5G providers to blend the 5G components into the already existing city landscape.

Staff members at the City’s Department of Transportation and Capital Improvements on Tuesday demonstrated how the City has collaborated with such 5G providers as Verizon and AT&T to hide the 5G wireless nodes, known as small-cell antennas. Such measures include attaching antennas to the top of already-existing traffic signals or placing a power supply inside of a City recycling bin.

“People have started to notice [5G antennas and equipment] within the right-of-way,” said Marc Jacobson, a program manager at the City’s Department of Transportation and Capital Improvements. “But part of what the City of San Antonio is doing is working with the providers to make them as inconspicuous as possible.”

With motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, scooterists, City furnishings, and infrastructure all competing for the right-of-way it will be important to limit the impact, especially in the downtown, to the design aesthetic as well as preserve the historic qualities, the City said.

To install 5G small-cell antennas, telecommunications companies apply with the City for a permit. But local government often has little control over where and how the companies place their equipment, City spokesman Joe Conger said.

“Now in the downtown, they have to comply with more design guidelines,” Conger said. “And so that’s what we’ve kind of tried to implement not just downtown, where we can work with them and collaborate.”

Downtown and cultural district design standards call for matching any equipment to existing color schemes and blending them into nearby surroundings.

In 2017, the Texas Legislature passed legislation that allowed telecommunications providers to begin work constructing and operating small-cell antennas, which laid the groundwork for 5G rollout. The Federal Communications Commissions followed that up with its 5G Fast Plan, which calls for cities, cable providers, and electric utilities to work together so that 5G technology is rolled out as quickly as possible.

Once rollout is complete, the City will comprise as many as thousands of small-cell nodes in the public right-of-way, according to the City. Hundreds will be concentrated in the city’s downtown.

“San Antonio decided to be pro-active, rather than reactive in its approach to this new wave of technology,” said JD Salinas, AT&T’s regional vice president for external and legislative affairs. “They worked with us to develop ways we could provide better service into the downtown area, without disturbing the look and feel of the City. San Antonio is now considered a model nationwide for their coordination, effective, and efficient streamlined processes.”

5G, or fifth-generation, wireless technology will allow for download speeds and data bandwidth that is 100 times the capacity of current cell phones. The data transmission speeds of wireless 4G communications allowed for the advent of services such as Uber, mobile dating apps, and on-demand delivery. It’s expected 5G will have a similar impact and support a new slate of technological advances.

AT&T has a live 5G network in San Antonio, but the carrier has come under criticism recently for touting its 5G Evolution service as a step toward 5G connectivity. But speed tests gathered by online publication Ars Technica show the network’s speeds are more comparable to 4G LTE. AT&T and Verizon are each building 5G infrastructure in more than 20 U.S. cities.

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