5G Is Coming to a Street Near You

Small cell installation on top of a street light in Charlotte, North Carolina / Crown Castle

5G wireless data networks are coming, but there still are important questions about their equitable implementation and energy consumption and their implications for our data privacy. Both the complexities and promises of 5G were discussed by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Geoffrey Starks and senior vice president of public policy for Samsung John Godfrey in The Transformative Power of 5G, a panel at Transformable: Cities, a Washington Post Live event exploring how technology is altering cities.

A 5G network looks a lot different than previous cell service infrastructure. Rather than 200-foot-tall towers scattered throughout a large area, 5G will need small cell towers placed frequently in order fully carry its data capacity. Some estimates claim a small cell tower will need to be placed every 500 feet to achieve maximum bandwidth.

The increase in data capacity and speed is related to the bandwidth of the frequency used to carry wireless data. Without drilling into the technical details of the different spectra, there are three frequency bands being proposed: low, medium, and high. The low bandwidth can travel the farthest distance and pass through trees and some other obstacles, but has the lowest data rate. Conversely, the high band can only travel shorter distance, but carries the most data. Optimized networks use all three spectra.

5G towers can be easily attached to existing infrastructure, like street lights in cities, but can be intrusive in neighborhoods and implausible in rural areas due to the distance between properties. Commissioner Starks was sensitive to the disparity, concerned that “those with much are getting more while everyone else is left behind.” He went on to cite an FCC report stating 19 million Americans do not have access to broadband, let alone 4G.

Godfrey echoed this concern, but added that low band was going to be rolled-out across the U.S. and it is uncertain if the medium and high frequency will be as widespread in rural areas as it will be in urban areas. Both panelists agreed that all three bandwidths will be necessary to realize a 5G network as advertised.

The FCC, the government agency responsible for regulating radio, television, and telephone companies in the U.S., put forth rules limiting the price local governments could charge telecom companies to $270 per small cell installation. Furthermore, they required local municipalities to approve or deny new build requests within 60 days. Both of these changes prompted 24 cities to file three law suits against the FCC, which are currently working their way through the courts.

While the lawsuits are pending, local governments have to comply with the FCC’s 5G streamlining plan. In Washington D.C., where regulatory boards oversee changes to the built environment, there was push back on the design of the small cells. For cities without regulatory boards, 5G is coming, and it is coming fast.

Both Godfrey and Commissioner Sparks said the experience you will have with your phone will be different in five years time. Godfrey expanded the changes beyond phones to include any number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, including “every cow in a dairy herd,” to laughs from the crowd. But it wasn’t a joke: in the UK, dairy cows have 5G collars, collecting biofeedback data and relaying it to milking robots.

Real-time feedback is possible with 5G, paving the way for autonomous vehicles and increasingly data intensive objects. Commissioner Starks is concerned about what this means for future data privacy: “The amount of data that is coursing through these devices is something we are going to be intentional about — how data is handled, managed, and secured.”

Starks’ privacy concern and Godfrey’s enthusiasm about 5G as a potential for innovation revolve around the IoT, and the enormous amount of data these products use and produce. Both panelists expected to see an explosion of new connected products, such as smart refrigerators and wearable devices, as 5G becomes widespread.

The coming tsunami of data will inundate data centers, creating the demand for more, a point not mentioned by either panelist. Data centers now contribute 0.3 percent of greenhouse emissions, but the entire network of information and communications technology (ICT) accounts for 2 percent of global emissions, the equivalent of the airline industry.

While data centers account for only a small portion of the total emissions, nearly all of their growth has been within the past decade and is expected to exponentially increase. Some models predict data centers could account for 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption by the time a child born today becomes a teen.

Google_Data_Center,_The_Dalles.jpg
Transformer Station outside Google data center in The Dalles, Oregon / Wikipedia

Many tech giants are aware of this, and have promised to use renewable energy to power their data centers. In a 2017 report on how green internet companies are, Greenpeace found Google uses 66 percent clean energy, Facebook uses 76 percent, while Amazon and Netflix use 43 percent.

Companies are making strides to keep their commitment to clean power in the face of incredible data growth. Hopefully, they can outpace the predicted tripling of their energy consumption in the next decade.

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