How 5G pits big carriers and government against small towns

A federal mandate to streamline the process for building out 5G could leave a lot of local municipalities feeling burned.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read
A streetscape in Doylestown, Pennsylvania

City officials in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, wanted 5G, but they didn't want to mar the charm of their historic downtown. New federal rules and state laws limiting local oversight could make it harder for other municipalities to do the same. 

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

Given the hype and interest around 5G, you'd think any community would welcome the next-generation cellular technology with open arms.

Not Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

When cell tower operator Crown Castle in 2014 proposed to erect dozens of 5G small-cell antennas for Verizon along the town's streets, Doylestown pushed back. Residents of the quaint community, nestled in the heart of history-rich Bucks County, wanted to ensure the speaker-size equipment mounted atop traffic lights or telephone poles wouldn't spoil its small-town charm.

So the borough spent $150,000, held several public hearings, and fought a legal battle in state and federal courts for nearly two years, defending its right to say where the small cells would go.

Watch this: Explaining 5G with a game of pool

The borough, home to 8,200 residents, settled with Crown Castle in July. Crown Castle agreed to conceal more of its gear and deploy fewer radios, and Doylestown was able to preserve its historic downtown, as well as earn some compensation for the use of the municipality's rights of way.

"We have spent decades trying to preserve the streetscapes that bring the shoppers and tourists," John Davis, borough manager, said in an interview. "So it's important for us to have some amount of local control."

The battle serves as a harbinger of the potential clashes between local municipalities and the forces pushing 5G, namely wireless carriers and federal and state authorities. This could be a conflict that plays out around the world as communities weigh the cost of having 5G closer to home. The friction lies in who has the ultimate authority to grant carriers the permission to hang more cellular radios, which are necessary for 5G service to work. Historically, that power has rested with locals.

At stake is how quickly the carriers will be able to roll out 5G, which promises a huge jump in speed and responsiveness, and the ability to power other forms of technologies, such as streaming augmented and virtual reality.

Smaller communities that are less open to the infrastructure upgrade risk appearing as if they're impeding the country's broader technical progress, as well as looking for a handout from the carriers.

But Davis doesn't see it that way.

"We never saw this new infrastructure as a cash cow," he said, adding that residents and visitors to Doylestown will benefit from the new network. "But they're using rights of way that belong to the public, and we deserve to be fairly compensated for it."


The small cell radio that will deliver 5G service in Doylestown sits atop its own utility pole. Crown Castle, the company building the network for Verizon, plans to deploy 33 cell sites. It had originally wanted to deploy 44. 

CNET/Marguerite Reardon

The issue

Unlike previous generations of wireless, 5G will require up to five times the amount of infrastructure as 3G or 4G deployments. The big promise of 5G -- a massive leap in speed -- requires the use of super high-frequency radio waves, called millimeter-wave spectrum, that are limited by range and obstructions like trees. The result is a network requiring radios on every city block, versus 4G gear that transmits signals over miles.

What this means is that there could be nearly 800,000 of these so-called small cells deployed in the US between 2018 and 2026 to provide 5G, according to a study commissioned by the wireless industry trade group CTIA. In a separate report, CTIA estimates that roughly 323,000 cell sites were in service at the end of 2017.

CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker says policies need to change in order to ensure wireless companies can efficiently deploy their gear.

"While wireless infrastructure has evolved significantly, too many local regulations have remained the same," she said in a blog post in September applauding the FCC's efforts to streamline the process.

To a community like Doylestown, the influx of new gear is overwhelming. For more than two decades, the 2.5-square-mile hamlet has been served by cellular radios aggregated atop a small handful of municipally owned water towers and buildings. Crown Castle's original proposal called for 44 small-cell sites. The two sides eventually settled on 33 sites.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (left) and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (left) and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr have been pushing for federal rules to limit fees municipalities can charge wireless carriers, as well as for a speeding up of the review process for deploying new gear in an effort to streamline the rollout of 5G service.

Bill Clark

Here come the feds

The Federal Communications Commission and state governments are trying to make it easier for 5G to become a reality, but that's meant steamrolling the authority of local government.

The FCC voted last month on rules that limit how much local governments can charge wireless companies to attach small radios to utility poles when deploying next-generation 5G service. Congress is also considering legislation that closely aligns with the FCC's new rules.

Meanwhile, 20 states have already passed legislation stripping municipalities of zoning oversight when telecom companies seek permits for small cells on utility poles and traffic lights. And several others, such as Pennsylvania, are considering bills to do the same.

The three Republicans on the FCC and industry lobbyists say the process for installing 5G gear must be streamlined as the US looks to compete with other countries, like China, for dominance in 5G.

"In the global race to 5G, the stakes are high -- it is about economic leadership for the next decade," FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said during the FCC's meeting in September, when the rules were adopted. "The smart infrastructure policies we adopt today strengthen America's role as a tech and economic leader, while ensuring that every community benefits from 5G."

But the US Conference of Mayors says the FCC's move goes too far in stripping local control.

"The [FCC] has embarked on an unprecedented federal intrusion into local (and state) government property rights that will have substantial and continuing adverse impacts on cities and their taxpayers," US Conference of Mayors CEO Tom Cochran said in statement. "The Conference and its members now look to the federal courts to review and rectify this unlawful taking of local property."

Jessica Rosenworcel, the only Democrat on the FCC, called the agency's actions "an extraordinary federal overreach," which she cautioned would have consequences.  

"I do not believe the law permits Washington to run roughshod over state and local authority like this," she said at the FCC's September meeting. "And I worry the litigation that follows will only slow our 5G future."

Here come the lawsuits

Within a week of the FCC's vote, Rosenworcel's prediction proved accurate, with officials in Portland and Seattle indicating they're considering filing lawsuits.

"Seattle strongly opposes this overreach by the Trump administration," Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes said in a press release. "Instead of expediting the deployment of high speed internet or addressing digital inequity, the FCC's actions impede local authority and will require cities to subsidize the wireless industry's deployment for private gain, giving away public property without asking for anything in return."

Earlier this month, Portland's city council voted 4-0 to pass a resolution paving the way for a lawsuit against the FCC, according to the Oregonian

But Carr said "several dozen mayors, local officials, and state lawmakers" support the FCC's new rules, because they believe that limiting "excessive fees" in a few "must-serve" cities will mean that wireless carriers spend that money to deliver broadband in their cities.

Ahead of the FCC's vote, Carr released statements from some of these local leaders expressing this sentiment.

Commissioner Maureen Davey of Stillwater County, Montana, said the FCC's actions would "lower regulatory barriers" that she believes will result in wireless carriers investing more to bring 5G to rural areas like Montana.

"Reducing fees and shortening review times in urban areas, thereby lowering the cost of deployment in such areas, can promote speedier deployment across all of America," she said in a statement.

'Flawed logic'

Blair Levin, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, who oversaw the 2010 National Broadband plan and served as chief of staff to Reed Hundt, the Clinton-era chairman of the FCC, said that isn't how investment decisions are made.

"Freeing up a dollar in one market doesn't mean it will be spent in another," he said. "That's not how it works. There needs to be a business case. And without that, carriers won't build a network."

Levin also said the FCC may be cutting off its nose to spite its face in severely limiting the negotiating power of municipalities.

Through experiences such as Google Fiber, history has shown that broadband deployments are most successful when close partnerships are formed between local governments and the private sector, where both sides have something to gain, Levin said.

"Given the challenges of broadband deployment economics, partnerships of all sorts between companies and local governments are essential," he wrote in a September blog post. "Tying the hands of localities and states is self‐defeating – it stops them from using creative partnering strategies to find ways to improve broadband outcomes."

One size does not fit all

Levin points to San Jose, California, as an example. The Silicon Valley hub has entered into formal partnerships with both Verizon and AT&T to install 5G small cells throughout the city. But as part of the deal, the city was able to negotiate that the network reach wealthy and low-income neighborhoods alike.

New York has also leveraged its control over city-owned assets to ensure 5G services also reach poorer parts of the city. It does this by charging variable rates on small cell installation fees that range from $144 per antenna in underserved neighborhoods to $5,100 in the richest parts of Manhattan.

These deals provide benefits to both sides that result in deployments "without the need of a top‐down, one‐size‐fits‐all framework that the FCC" has imposed on thousands of municipalities, Levin said. By contrast, he argues that the limits imposed by federal and state governments have neutered the negotiating power of municipalities, making it much less likely the public will benefit from partnerships between local governments and wireless carriers.

For his part, Davis argues a deal between Doylestown and Crown Castle could have been reached a lot more quickly had the authority of the town been more secure. The fact that the FCC was considering new rules, as well as the introduction of state legislation and various appeals at the state and federal level, caused enough uncertainty that the process dragged out.

But in the end, Davis said the process worked and he felt the outcome was fair for both sides.

"It's not unreasonable to slow things down a bit to understand the impacts," he said. "Every community deserves that."

5G: Your Next Big Upgrade: CNET's series on the next generation of cellular technology.

The 5G revolution: Everything you need to know about the wireless technology.