Streamlined 5G buildout puts ‘ground furniture’ in Houston’s front yards

Dirk Wijnands and Adeline Pang hadn’t paid much attention to the upcoming 5G wireless data revolution until their building blocks were installed on the couple’s lawn in Montrose without warning.

In September 2019, work began on the street near their home in Elmen bei Westheimer when contractors were digging trenches to install fiber optic cables. Shortly afterwards, a box that resembled an oversized refrigerator in the dormitory appeared on her lawn next to a previously placed wooden power pole.

“Three weeks after work started, they put a little label on our doorknob that said something like, ‘Oh, we’re working on your lawn,” said Wijnands Don’t see for days and then you would be back. “

In the technical jargon of telecommunications, the box is called “floor furniture”. The beige metal cabinets with an attached electricity meter supply a transmitter on Verizon’s wireless data network with electricity and a high-speed fiber optic link. They crop up on lawns across Houston and in other cities across the United States, often without notice to homeowners.

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It’s part of the rush to build the next generation wireless network called 5G – – even if it means ticking off the residents. Norman Ewart, a retired attorney who lives in the Rice Memorial area, said one of the boxes was placed outside his front gate. He complained to Verizon, but the box stays in place.

“It hasn’t been switched on yet, it’s just sitting there,” said Ewart. “I want it to be gone. It’s ugly and devalues ​​my property. “

5G is touted as another disruptive technology, and as Houston residents like Wijnands, Pang and Ewart have noted, it doesn’t come without disruptions. Telecommunications companies, device manufacturers, lawmakers, and industry associations have promised much faster wireless data speeds, less latency or delay, and transforming the 21st century economy on a 4G wireless scale activated mobile apps that created new services from ride hail to video streaming.

In order to fulfill the promise of 5G, the federal and state governments have tightened the regulations for the approval and construction of telecommunications infrastructures such as towers, the transmitters on them and the fiber optic cables that feed them data. Cities have less control over these networks, leading to confused and unhappy landowners.

The amount of money that is being spent is mind-boggling. The CTIA, the trading group for the wireless telecommunications industry, estimates that the 5G roll-out will cost $ 275 billion in the US alone. Some estimates put it at $ 300 billion.

5G primer

5G in the US operates mainly on three types of frequencies. The way each work is done determines what type of equipment is needed for the transfer.

Low band spectrumoperating below 1 GHz is used by all three major carriers. These frequencies are also used for 4G LTE and have a range of kilometers but typically speeds that are 20 to 40 percent better than LTE.

Mid-band spectrum, The device operates between 1 GHz and 6 GHz (sometimes referred to as “Sub-6”) and has a shorter range than the low band, but can move data more quickly. Currently only T-Mobile offers 5G in this spectrum and acquired it when it merged with Sprint. Mid-band speeds can approach 1 gigabit per second, but are typically in the range of 200Mbps to 500Mbps.

High frequency spectrum, Millimeter wave or mmWave, works between 24 GHz and 39 GHz. It offers the fastest speeds but also has the shortest range – in some cases, its signal drops only 1,000 feet from the transmitter. In addition, it cannot penetrate through buildings, glass, or even foliage. Verizon and AT&T use mmWave. T-Mobile has it in some cities, but not in Houston yet. In theory, mmWave can transfer data at up to 6 gigabits per second, which is about six times the speed offered by AT & T’s fiber optic home internet service. Currently, Verizon’s mmWave can deliver speeds of up to 2 Gbps.

This does not include the cost of purchasing spectrum – the radio spectrum over which wireless services are transmitted. Telecommunications companies recently bid nearly $ 81 billion in auctions by the Federal Communications Commission on a portion of the spectrum known as C-band.

Speed ​​versus distance

To understand why 5G build is complicated and expensive – and potentially hit the turf near you – it’s important to understand that 5G isn’t just a technology. Rather, it is an amalgam of many different. It’s how they’re put together and how they interact that makes 5G its promise.

Wireless networks use radio waves, collectively known as radio spectrum, to send and receive. The radio waves work at different frequencies. Higher frequencies can transfer more data faster, but don’t travel that far. Lower frequencies have a greater range, but cannot transmit as much information as quickly.

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The C-band spectrum auctioned by the FCC is in the middle, which is considered the “sweet spot” for 5G, as it delivers higher speeds than low frequencies, but can transmit its signals further than high frequencies.

As cellular companies build 5G networks, they use low, medium, and high frequencies to optimize speed and range. The process of introducing 5G in the US includes changes to cell towers, on-site devices that provide power, and internet connection. and the data and network centers used to manage wireless communications.

While low and mid-band 5G transmitters are often installed on the same towers as the previous 4G LTE technology, high-frequency transmitters have to be lower down on the ground and close together.

High frequency radio frequency transmission requires many small cells, a strategy known as densification. Because of its distance and penetration limitations, radio frequency transmission has been limited to urban areas and places where people gather in large numbers, such as city streets. B. stadiums or airports.

But that is changing.

Loss of control

Houston was the first city in which Verizon sold a version of its home 5G service designed to compete with broadband wired and fiber optic Internet access in residential areas. The service began in 2018 when Verizon began installing the “floor furniture” cabinets and placing small cell transmitters on power poles.

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These transmitters provide Verizon’s 5-frequency radio frequency service, which is marketed as Ultrawideband. The service, which was first offered to areas in or near downtown, was expanded to other neighborhoods near downtown, midtown, and the energy corridor – almost to Beltway 8.

In the past, cities had greater leeway in controlling where telecommunications equipment was placed on their territories. However, changes made by both the Federal Communications Commission and Texan lawmakers to streamline the licensing process have limited what cities can do.

The FCC rules prevented communities like Houston, To do this, utilities must be buried to block the construction of above-ground infrastructure and small-cell towers. That’s why Verizon’s boxes are showing up in the Houston neighborhoods.

A 2017 law allows telecommunications companies to install the 5G devices without soliciting or notifying homeowners. That bill, along with a later decision by the FCC, also lowered the fees the city might impose installation Bill Kelly, director of government relations for the city of Houston, said a wireless node is hampered from $ 2,700 to $ 300 from $ 2,700, affecting the city’s ability to maintain rights of way and infrastructure like power poles.

“Cities can absolutely be partners in this process,” he said. “We cannot be on the menu all the time and be seen as an obstacle.”

Houston City Councilor David Robinson, chairman of the city’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee that oversees telecommunications projects, put it in a nutshell.

“It’s another example of Houston getting the shaft as a community,” said Robinson

Waiting for answers

Robinson, who happens to live near Wijnand and Pang’s house, said his main concern was that Verizon not alert residents before the boxes were placed.

The approvals do not require notification of anyone, Verizon spokeswoman Kate Jay said.

“We need to work with design districts and historic contracts, but not individual homeowners,” Jay said via email. “We take all complaints very seriously. Each case is assessed individually, with many factors influencing this assessment. In limited cases, we have determined that there are enough reasons to postpone it and have done so. “

Verizon declined to make executives available for interviews. In a statement, the company said, “We are in full compliance with all zoning and licensing requirements, and potential antenna sites must meet all local, state and federal regulations. These are placed in the right of way and are duly permitted. “

Elizabeth Kantner, who lived in the Rice Memorial area near Washington Ave. Lives, said crews placed one of the boxes in front of their home last September, but not on the ground. Instead, it was mounted on a utility pole about three feet above the ground. The crews dug up grass underneath and then left. A previous excavation cut off water pipes in the area, she said.

“When they started digging to lay cables, there were two water pipes that flooded our street,” said Kantner.

After Kantner met with the head of the construction team, the box was removed and the lawn replaced. Looking at her front yard, it’s hard to tell that anything was ever there.

But she said the matter was not resolved. Kantner said the contractor told her the box could reappear at any time and would check if she would return or move to another property.

So far, she said, there hasn’t been a word.

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