Small Cell Builds “Needlessly Ugly”?

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In light of the FCC’s upcoming vote next week on the 5G upgrade plan electrical engineer Michael Marcus shared his filing with Inside Towers. He told the agency a way to lower the backlash in some markets against small cell builds would be if the industry developed a more consistent build appearance.

Marcus is also a former FCC staffer with a specialization in spectrum policy. He retired 15 years ago from the Office of Engineering and Technology, and now has a consultancy, Marcus Spectrum Solutions, LLC. “There’s no need for ugly poles,” he told Inside Towers, referring to what can look like a rat’s nest of wiring. “This is what needlessly aggravates neighbors.”  

In his public comments, Marcus wrote: “In the long term, 5G infrastructure will continue to have conflicts with its neighbors unless the carriers and the infrastructure industry stop pursuing mainly legal solutions to conflicts over ubiquitous 5G infrastructure with local governments and start recognizing that new industry frameworks are needed due to the changing nature of infrastructure.”

He supports the need for a rapid 5G build. However, Marcus says 5G infrastructure is fundamentally different than previous generations of wireless infrastructure in two key ways:

1)  “It will mostly be much lower in antenna height than previous generations in order to get much higher spectrum reuse and thus higher capacity and speed and lower latency – key goals of 5G. Base stations over 50’ will become rare and limited to low population density areas. Small base stations on utility poles and modest height buildings will become much more common especially in residential areas. Low infrastructure is much closer to eye level. Construction details that are annoying at the top of a 50’ become much more distracting 15’ above the ground.”

2) “It will be truly ubiquitous as … the number of small base stations needed [is] often given as 700,000. Many Americans who can not see a base station in their neighborhood today will have one on their block or the adjacent block. While the 5G upgrade plan will have short term benefits, the basic scheme of trying to regulate the appearance of infrastructure through either federal or local regulations is ‘doomed to failure,'” according to Marcus. 

Marcus continues: “The industry needs the support of the very people in whose neighborhoods they are placing infrastructure in very visible places and industry cannot keep that support if they build needlessly messy infrastructure on a recurring basis, even if much of the infrastructure is neat. Rather than spending large sums on lawyers and lobbyists the industry should look at itself in the mirror and realize that consistent neat infrastructure that really ‘looks like pizza boxes’ is necessary and vital to their long-term success.”

“They should implement a new clear industry culture that consistent neatness in visual appearance is key to industry success – not just something done in desperation to get construction approval,” he writes.

Today’s infrastructure often has co-located carriers. In such cases, it’s not clear if any single party is responsible for the overall appearance of the infrastructure, both as initially built and as its appearance evolves with maintenance and updates, according to Marcus. In an interview, he described frustration at trying to determine who to call about an unlocked small cell installation in his neighborhood. “Do today’s carriers even have a single person with oversight of their ‘fleet’ of base stations?” he asked. 

Marcus continued: “While industry brags about ‘pizza box’ antennas, a review of their public relation material shows they consistently use only pictures of antennas on hollow metal poles. There is good reason to believe that a significant fraction of small base stations will be on existing wooden utility poles that are common in much of the country. Neatness on such poles is possible but requires a different approach for hollow metal poles since cabling and equipment cannot be hidden inside such poles. 

While the industry is able to issue its ‘Best Practices’ for local governments to manage infrastructure siting, why doesn’t it have anything resembling ‘Best Practices’ for ubiquitous small base stations? Why doesn’t it have best practices for mounting equipment on wooden poles?”

He included photos of what he says is a small base station in the Seattle area that has existed in its current state for more than five years. “Note that while the actual antenna at the top is a cylinder that is as attractive as a ‘pizza box,’ the rat’s nest of cables on the pole defies explanation or any sign of a rational design process,” says Marcus.

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