The hundreds of thousands of small cells needed to run 5G are a recipe for conflict between cities and wireless carriers

October 19, 2018
7:00 AM EDT

Cellphone towers disguised as pine trees, palm trees or cacti aren’t fooling many as they jut out of the natural landscape. Just google the Rogers Communications Inc. “tree” that towers over Sudbury, Ont., or the BCE Inc. ones in Muskoka, Ont.

Of course, wireless companies have for years dressed up existing steel poles in an attempt to appease cottage, beach or desert dwellers who’d rather not see the infrastructure needed to power their mobile devices.

But telecoms will need new camouflage tactics as they prepare for the 5G network evolution that will enable real-time applications such as self-driving cars and smart cities. On top of the approximately 33,000 towers already dotting the Canadian landscape, 5G networks will require a few hundred thousand small cells equipped with radio equipment and antenna.

Variously described as the size of pizza boxes, briefcases or laptops, approximately 273,000 small cells will be embedded into Canadian cityscapes over the next five to seven years, Accenture PLC estimates. You’ll find these cells every few city blocks on lampposts, buildings, newspaper boxes and bus stops, as well as in every office building because 5G operates at higher frequencies that can’t easily penetrate walls or buildings.

Yet there’s tension between the telecoms that want to build their networks as quickly as possible and the municipalities that want to know exactly what goes where and how it might affect their properties. There’s also a debate over how much the telecoms will pay for the right to latch their equipment onto existing infrastructure.

Municipalities have some say where telecom equipment goes under federal tower siting rules that require consultation for any tower taller than 15 metres. But, ultimately, the federal government has jurisdiction over everything to do with telecommunications, and it might change the rules to speed things up given the importance of 5G, which is expected to create a host of yet-to-be-dreamed-up industries, much like 4G enabled app economy players such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc.

As part of the Government of Canada’s review of the broadcast, telecom and radiocommunication acts, it is consulting with the public on whether its procedures are “5G ready.” It has already acknowledged that shared responsibility over passive infrastructure presents challenges for efficient deployment.


A 5G cell in a U.S. city. Installing such a network is underway in the U.S. where its equivalent of the CRTC — the Federal Communications Commission — has ruled that municipalities have 60 days to approve or deny proposals to attach a small cell to an existing structure. The order also limits the fees municipalities can charge, although it gives them leeway for “reasonable aesthetic reviews.€ Verizon

“Inefficient access can dramatically increase the cost of deployment or prevent it altogether,” Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) stated in its terms of reference for the legislative reform.

“Given the importance of passive infrastructure for network deployment and the expected growth of 5G wireless, are the right provisions in place for governance of these assets?”

While Canada asks questions, the U.S. has already changed its rules to constrain a city’s control over small cells on their streets.

The Federal Communications Commission last month passed an order that puts a shot clock on small cell deployment, giving municipalities 60 days to approve or deny proposals to attach a small cell to an existing structure. The order also limits the fees municipalities can charge, although it gives them leeway for “reasonable aesthetic reviews.”

Telecoms praised the change, but some municipalities are livid. The U.S. Conference of Mayors called the order a “wrongful intrusion” and a “gift” to private enterprise, and vowed to take its beef to court.

Asked if Canada would consider similar rules, an ISED spokesperson said it’s “closely monitoring the developments in other countries, including the United States, regarding the management of siting next-generation 5G small cells.”

Canada’s consultation phase runs until November, but the expert review panel isn’t expected to deliver its final report until January 2020, though telecoms and cities alike acknowledge the need for upgraded regulations when it comes to 5G infrastructure.

Telecoms have already started deploying small cells that can be upgraded to 5G and are testing the new technology in various labs and environments across the country. For now, the small cells improve 4G LTE network connections. Telecoms don’t divulge how much they each cost.

As it stands, telecoms must come to separate deployment agreements with individual cities, typically broad agreements that include fibre deployment. Those agreements just cover public property. For private property, such as office buildings where 5G networks may require two or three small cells per floor, telecoms have to strike deals with each landlord.

Getting everyone on board involves knocking on a lot of doors. But Rogers has figured out a way to test 5G in a real environment with fewer complications.

It inked a three-year, multi-million-dollar partnership with the University of British Columbia to build a 5G hub at its Vancouver campus on the tip of a peninsula that hosts 56,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff.

“The idea is that this becomes an actual live production,” Jorge Fernandes, Rogers Communications’ chief technology officer, said. “It’s not just a lab environment.

Critically, UBC isn’t technically part of the City of Vancouver or the University Endowment Lands.

“They have complete planning authority over this ‘city,’” Fernandes said. “If you think about it from our perspective, it’s the ideal location to test real-world applications in an environment where you can get the technology deployed very, very quickly.”

In this case, Rogers and UBC have the ability to put small cells wherever they like for their research (they’ll share the intellectual property).

They plan to study radio propagation — small cells behave differently than macro cells, so they’ll analyze how radio waves behave and how simple things such as foliage affect network quality — 5G applications such as traffic or energy management, as well as artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze smart city data.

Still, selling 5G can be tough. Most cities want the latest networks as a way to attract residents and businesses, but 5G’s benefits remain a bit of a mystery.

“It’s not something you can buy out of a box right now,” Fernandes said.

It will take 12 to 18 months for the first iteration of 5G, which Fernandes described as “4G on steroids.” But it’s the second release — date to be determined — that will have the real-time capabilities that would really help cities do things such as manage traffic or even check when a garbage can fills up.

The sales pitch comes down to exploring such possibilities and others. Telecoms hope municipalities will see it as an exchange where municipalities give access to infrastructure in return for smart city applications that will ultimately reduce their costs, Fernandes said.

Despite the benefits, there has been pushback, usually related to infrastructure placement, but sometimes related to health concerns.

“People want to have the service, they want to have the coverage, but they don’t want to see where it’s coming from,” Fernandes said.

It inked a three-year, multi-million-dollar partnership with the University of British Columbia to build a 5G hub at its Vancouver campus.
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Gord McGuire, the City of Hamilton’s director of engineering services, is one of the people receiving these sales pitches.

“Most cities are pretty open to have advanced telecommunications infrastructure,” he said. “It’s a huge benefit, it’s a big attraction for business and residents.”

But the evolution from copper wires to cells changes the way cities have to look at rights-of-way, the areas below, on or above city streets and sidewalks. Wireless communications all end up in a wire somewhere, McGuire said, and rights-of-way are already loaded with infrastructure. Plus the city has to ensure equipment isn’t placed where there’s upcoming development or roadwork.

As density grows and telecoms build out their networks, Hamilton is getting ever more permit requests, he said. But telecoms are reluctant to share long-term plans for competitive reasons, making it difficult for the city to respond with staffing.

“Without us fully understanding the program more than six months to a year out, it’s difficult for us to react really quickly,” he said. “It would be helpful if telecoms had a game plan.”

Other common questions dwell on the practical. With so many cells, how much of a risk is vandalism? (Not much, given they’ll be adhered to poles and blend in, Rogers said.) Does the network collapse if a car knocks over a street lamp? (No, the traffic would be picked up by adjacent cells.)

Then there’s the question of who pays for determining the best sites and maintaining them.

Earlier this year, Hamilton, the City of Calgary and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities filed a joint application with the telecom regulator in a dispute between Hamilton and Bell. The cities argued that taxpayers shouldn’t have to split the bill with Bell to find location information for underground facilities.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in August issued a decision siding with Bell.

Calgary is also in the middle of a court battle with Rogers, Bell, Shaw Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and Zayo Canada Inc. over its municipal rights-of-way bylaw.

Bruce Cullen, Calgary’s director of corporate analytics and innovation, won’t comment on a case before the courts, but he echoed the importance of revamping procedures for small cells, which may be placed every 300 metres in dense urban areas.

“It’s a lot of infrastructure if you think about it, if all are connected to power or some sort of fibre backhaul,” he said. “The processes we currently have aren’t going to work.”

As the federal government reviews its rules, Calgary plans to advocate on behalf of its citizens to ensure there are no safety issues or unnecessary tax burdens. The city is redesigning its internal processes so the people who work on streetlights, roads and above-ground facilities have input inTO where the small cells go.

Calgary has time to plan, Cullen said, given the industry still needs to set final standards and the government must auction off more spectrum before 5G becomes a reality. The city is also preparing for a 5G world with its own “living lab,” where it’s working with the University of Calgary on smart city applications.

Cities and telecoms recognize 5G isn’t just about faster speeds. Rather, it’s a whole new network. Right now, Canada is building it piecemeal.

For instance, Telus has successfully reached separate commercial arrangements with cities, building owners and provinces, though it would prefer a more cohesive approach, said Ted Woodhead, Telus’ senior vice-president of regulatory affairs.

Its tech team would “giddy up” on capital investment if there were clearer rules in place to distinguish jurisdiction, he said. Court battles that arise because of disagreements over whether a municipality or the federal government has final say, “it goes without saying, inject a great deal of delay in the process,” he added.

Woodhead lauded the FCC’s order to speed up deployment in the U.S., particularly since it limits how much cities can charge telecoms on an ongoing basis to lease space on city property.

“This isn’t about macro towers, it’s about small cells,” he said “We need 2018, 2019, 2020 rules to deal with this change in reality.”

In a telecom’s current best-case scenario, it takes about a year to get a 30 to 75-metre tall macro tower built and lit up, he said.

“We can’t be doing that times 100,000 or 200,000 or 300,000,” Woodhead said. “Canada will be so far behind the 5G curve. I don’t think that’s in the public interest, I don’t think that’s in the government’s interest. I don’t think, ultimately and most importantly, it’s in Canadians’ interest.”