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Minnesota is one of the early leaders in 5G wireless. What does that mean for the cities where it’s being rolled out?

One big issue for cities is the increased number of antennas, or as the industry calls it: “network densification.”

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson/Photos by Peter Callaghan
It was meant to make Minnesota more amenable to the next generation of wireless technology. 

5G wireless will increase speeds and make way for everything from driverless vehicles to remote-controlled surgery. And backers of the technology — 5G stands for fifth generation — say it will be a potent economic development generator that has geopolitical implications. China is considered ahead of the U.S., for example, and woe is the economy that finishes second.

So in 2017, Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature inserted language into a budget bill that established a common set of statewide rules, fees and timelines across jurisdictions. 

At the time, local governments objected to the rules, which they feared would give away rights-of-way for less than they were worth. But for the most part, industry won — and Minnesota became an early target for what are formally called “small cell wireless facilities.”

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Now, two years later, Minnesotans are starting to notice the rapidly proliferating result of that decision, as all four national wireless carriers are installing an array of equipment on light and utility poles in at least three Minnesota cities, mostly for devices not yet widely available. 

“We have worked closely with Minneapolis both in the Legislature and through the deployment of small cells in the streets,” wrote David Weissman, a public relations manager for Verizon. “Their cooperation has driven the investment needed to make Minneapolis one of the first cities in the world with a 5G network available for consumers, businesses and first responders.”

More antennas. A lot more antennas

5G is often described as revolutionary, but the installation of 5G infrastructure is needed before that revolution can become a reality. While service is technically available in Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are few devices in the hands of consumers that can actually make use of the speeds.

Verizon is marketing new smartphones, for example, that can use 5G networks — where available — and then hand over signals to the existing 4G network. Existing cellphones are not compatible. 

While actual service might be fledgling, the anticipation is fully mature — and often breathless: “The world’s economy is at another pivotal moment as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and augmented reality are transitioning from buzz words to the basis for long-term national economic potential,” wrote Dan Littmann and others from consulting firm Deloitte in a paper titled “5G: The chance to lead for a decade.”

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson/Photo by Peter Callaghan
The paper argues that the U.S. is not moving fast enough, however, and risks falling behind other nations: “China and other countries may be creating a 5G tsunami, making it near impossible to catch up.”

U.S. carriers have vowed to change that. One of the rationales for the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, which would leave just three primary providers of wireless service in the U.S., is the combined company’s capacity to invest in 5G technology.

Minneapolis was one of the first cities targeted by Verizon in its push for 5G. When it made the announcement, the company said the timing was related to the 2018 Super Bowl. But backers of the 2017 law say it gave the industry surety it lacked elsewhere and moved Minnesota up in the installation timetable. And with a national, decade-long build-out estimated to cost as much as $275 billion, being among the first has benefits, they say. 

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So far, battles between the four major wireless companies and cities have been more common in other states. California, for example, has been the setting for fights over fees charged and aesthetics of the equipment.

The issue for cities is the increased number of antennas. Unlike existing networks, which use towers that can cover many square miles, 5G uses small-cell waves that don’t travel as far and rely on line of sight between antennae and a phone or device. That means lots and lots and lots of equipment installed on utility poles throughout a city, or as the industry calls it: “network densification.”

Each set of boxes must be connected to underground fiber networks, and each needs a power supply, both of which are available on or near streetlights and telephone poles.

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson/Photo by Peter Callaghan
Cities regulate rights-of-way — sidewalks, curbs and streets as well as anything placed in, on or below them. Often local governments own or control the utility poles that increasingly host cameras, police equipment and older wifi technology. Without a change in state law, each city would have been empowered with designing regulations around permitting fees, electricity hookups and rental of space on poles.

Knowing that 5G would require many times more antennas than current systems, the industry began pushing for state control even before the technical protocols for 5G were agreed to.

How Minnesota got here

Minnesota law already granted wireless providers access to utility poles as long as the company meets local rules and standards. But at the beginning of the 2017 Minnesota legislative session, two bills that would have established statewide rules for 5G were filed, each with Republican lead sponsors. While neither passed, they led to negotiations that reached an agreement inserted into the jobs and economic growth omnibus bill that was signed by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.

Rep. Marion O’Neill of Maple Lake, one of the lead sponsors of the legislation, was asked to help broker the deal between the industry and the local governments. While she said she was sympathetic the cities’ concerns about their rights-of-way, she was not willing to agree to what she considered onerous permit and pole rental fees.  

“It was a unique process that I never experienced before and I don’t know that I will again,” she said. 

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Permit fees were the biggest hurdle, she said. Some municipal players wanted upwards of $2,500 per pole. But given the need for many installations, that would have been too much. “These could be at the end of every block in the case of Minneapolis because of the structures,” O’Neill said. 

The new law requires application fees to be reasonable and based on actual costs of processing them. Cities can also charge up to $150 per pole placement for rent, up to $25 a year for a share of pole maintenance and the costs of any electricity needed. 

“It’s very challenging for them to work with all these individual cities,” O’Neill said of the big carriers. “It made their process a lot simpler, which is why we’re basically the first in the world to have 5G turned on in Minneapolis.”

Daniel Lightfoot is a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities and while he wasn’t involved in the 2017 negotiations, right-of-way use is now within his portfolio. While internet service providers have a right to put up facilities on city owned infrastructure, “we’re trying to ensure a balanced approach to the deployment of those facilities while also allowing cities to manage their right of way.”

It isn’t just the use of city property, Lightfoot said. It is whether the poles can carry the weight. What else is there? Are there aesthetic concerns, especially in historic districts? Will cities be able to recover enough in fees to cover the costs of the people and systems needed to process permits and inspections?

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson/Photo by Peter Callaghan
The League of Minnesota Cities ended up being neutral on the bill, though it had been opposed before the negotiations. For states and cities, the regulatory action is now moved to the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission issued an order last September creating nationwide standards for what it termed “the global race to 5G.”

“Today’s action is the next step in the FCC’s ongoing efforts to remove regulatory barriers that would unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services,” the order states. The order has rules that limit fees and pole rentals as well as creating time limits or “shot clocks” for city action on applications.

The FCC rules are similar to the Minnesota state law but there are a few conflicts that would be resolved in favor of the FCC. A coalition of local governments is challenging the proposed rules as an overreach of federal authority, however, though the rules remain in effect while the case is being heard by the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals.

Not unlimited space

If there is competition among nations to build-out their 5G infrastructure, there is also one among U.S. cities. Access to the technology “will soon become a differentiator for cities looking to attract businesses and residents,” Littmann and his co-authors wrote in their paper for Deloitte. “Cities that provide accelerated and lower-cost mechanisms for wireless infrastructure deployment are likely to get rewarded by providing their residents and businesses access to game-changing 5G services faster that cities that fail to address costly or unreasonable delays.” 

Even before the state law passed in 2017, Minneapolis had a city policy of being cooperative with wireless companies. Steve Mosing, traffic operations engineer for the city’s public works department, said the city had already processed 200 small-cell installation permits before the state law took effect. It has processed 400 more since.

All four major carriers have each been permitted for at least 50 antennas within Minneapolis. “Prior to the legislation, we were already up and operating with our permitting system for the small-cell carriers,” Mosing said. 

One catalyst was the Super Bowl, he said. “Prior to the Super Bowl, there was a peak in requests for small-cell antennas to be placed on street-light infrastructure,” he said. “The small-cell carriers definitely wanted to get these devices up.”

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson/Photo by Peter Callaghan
There was no change in permitting requests related to the NCAA Final Four, he said, which could be due to the fact that so many were already installed for the NFL. The antennas were installed around numerous Super Bowl venues, including the stadium and around Nicollet Mall where the NFL’s Super Bowl Live fan events took place. 

Since then, the installations have spread throughout downtown and have begun to cross the Mississippi River. In St. Paul, antennae are being installed downtown, in Lowertown and along West 7th Street. Besides Minneapolis and St. Paul, Verizon has done an early 5G rollout in Chicago, Denver and Providence, Rhode Island. 

Joseph Laurin, project coordinator for Minneapolis Public Works, said no permits or installations have been rejected so far.

In addition to city owned equipment — including street cameras, traffic cameras, police ShotSpotter microphones and a public Wi-Fi network — there are private users as well including USI Wireless equipment. All of which has to be managed. “Our pole space is not unlimited,” Mosing said.