5G Deployment Challenge: Part1

IEEE Future Networks Podcasts with the Experts An IEEE Future Directions Digital Studio Production

5G video picIEEE Future Networks Podcasts with the Experts

An IEEE Future Directions Digital Studios Production 

The 5G Deployment Challenge - Part 1 of a Series – A Panel Discussion on Public Pushback, Policy, and Public vs. Private

Despite 5G’s potential and favorable economics, deployment of the technology is proving challenging for a variety of reasons. 5G, the fifth generation of wireless technology, promises improved performance of mobile broadband for consumer devices such as smartphones and other user devices, but also adding support for fixed broadband to homes and businesses, massive machine-type communications for the Internet of Things, ultra-reliable low latency communications for virtual and augmented reality, and a host of other applications still in development. Analysts estimate that 5G will bring $275 billion in private investment to infrastructure in the U.S., and vastly more on a global scale, and that it will contribute a significant return to national and global GDP. A panel of wireless industry veterans -- experts who’ve spent their careers on the front lines building our nation’s wireless infrastructure -- discuss challenges in 5G deployment including public pushback, policy, and public vs. private options, and offer some possible solutions.

View the International Networks Generations Roadmap page with Executive Summary, and options for viewing the Deployment White Paper.

Subject Matter Experts


David Witkowski 
IEEE Senior Member
Co-chair, Deployment Working Group, International Network Generations Roadmap
Founder & CEO, Oku Solutions LLC
Executive Director, Wireless Communications Initiative at Joint Venture Silicon Valley



Tim Page, AICP
Co-chair, Deployment Working Group, International Network Generations Roadmap
Real Estate Program Manager – SFO
CCRE – Strategic Relocation
Crown Castle

JoAnna Wang
Director of Government & Community Affairs

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Podcast Transcript 

David Witkowski: Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining me today. I have with us JoAnna Wang from Modus and Tim Page from Crown Castle International. JoAnna, why don't you tell us a little bit about your background?

JoAnna Wang: Thank you for having me today, David. My name is JoAnna Wang. I am director of government and community affairs with Modus. Modus is a site development services firm specializing in small cell solutions. We were founded in 2005 and have deployed thousands of wireless telecommunications facilities on behalf of the major carriers in some of the most challenging municipalities in the western United States. We are headquartered in San Francisco and have a presence throughout northern California, the Pacific Northwest, central Texas, and Louisiana. My background, I am a licensed attorney, been in the industry now going on eight years where I spent a significant portion of that time with Verizon Wireless in the network real estate department leading all types of deployments, including macros and small cells throughout northern California and parts of Nevada. So, thank you for having me.

David Witkowski: Welcome. Thanks for being here. Tim Page, why don't you give us an introduction to you?

Tim Page: Hi, David. Thanks for having me here today. I work for Crown Castle, which is probably the largest cell tower owner-manager in the United States with over 40,000 cell towers, 60,000 miles of fiber, and about 50,000 small cell nodes. We have offices in 46 states. I specifically work in strategic relocation, and my role specifically is to extend leases on existing cell tower sites and/or find new locations to deploy them.

David Witkowski: The Deployment Working Group was founded particularly because I did a presentation at the IEEE 5G World Forum and, in the course of that event, I began to realize that the engineering side of 5G wasn't really talking to the deployment side. In my experience working at Joint Venture Silicon Valley and the other organizations that I'm involved with, deployment is such a critical topic in the success or failure of any wireless deployment. I realized that it was critical for us to bring the deployment question back into the marketing and engineering side of wireless technology. It's very important that engineers and marketers, product managers throughout the value chain of wireless technology understand how important it is that these technologies be deployable, and the people that we're talking to today are the ones who are on the front lines having to work with the technologies that are available to them, making those tradeoffs. So, the value, I believe, of the Deployment Working Group is that we will inform that wireless ecosystem to create technologies that will be more deployable, more satisfactory to the cities and agencies that are approving them, and ultimately more accepted by the general public. So, let's talk about why deployment is an issue. What I'd like to do now is to hear from our panelists as to what their experiences are in that regard. So, JoAnna, why don't you give us some anecdotes, some experiences from your time in doing deployments?

JoAnna Wang: I think part of the problem is that people don't understand that deployments don't just happen. A lot of work and effort goes into getting one site. It's really hard and it's not a slam dunk but people expect their phones to work when they need it. I think, too, just given the timeframe it takes to get a single site deployed, by the time we actually get to an approval process, the equipment's changed, we have power concerns, engineering standards are different, and then we have to redesign and redesign.

David Witkowski: Yeah, that is very true. I think certainly four years to do one small cell is an amazing amount of time, not as long as some of the small cells that we've seen, which in some cases, I know of small cell deployments that took almost a decade to finalize, and in some cases, it was literally nine to ten years. So, that's really, I think, startling to a lot of people, that they realize just how hard it is to get this work done. Tim Page, why don't you talk about your experience in deployments?

Tim Page: So, I've been doing direct zoning and permitting services since 2012, and while that does not seem to be very long ago, in cellular timeline it's an eternity. And, before that, I used to do land development, large retail projects throughout California. So, I've seen this from a number of perspectives and, this may sound odd, but I'm not sure that wireless deployment is any harder than any other types of deployment in California, but since our focus is wireless that's what we see. A good analogy to this is all you have to do is look at the housing issue that we have in California, and the reason why that's so difficult is because of about 30 to 40 years of legislation, about why that is so difficult. So, it's not difficult today. It's been difficult for a long time, and then the closest analogy I can come up with is when we first started doing this, a cell tower was really analogous to an overhead powerline. There was no other application you could associate it with, and most planning departments have absolutely no experience with this type of infrastructure because it's so new. I can tell you one of my favorite challenges that we have is, and we love to list it this way, and here's the irony. So, John Smith accesses the city website on his phone, and he finds out when a planning commission hearing is. He then downloads that staff report on his phone to read about the project. He then opposes the project with an email sent from his phone, in opposition to any improvement over the broadband network in his area, ultimately affecting the usefulness of his phone. I can't think of any better way to point that out because there's a total disconnect between when we reach in our pocket and use our phone and how that data gets to the phone, so I can probably provide some other ones, David. I just wanted to throw that out there to inject a little humor.

David Witkowski: Yeah, that's just a lack of understanding of how these things work. The other thing that occurred was that somebody I was speaking about, that gentleman who was complaining about the sites in his neighborhood, literally posted video taken from his phone of the cell site and of some $150 meter that he purchased from Amazon that he claimed was going to tell him what the signal levels were. And, of course, both you and JoAnna know that testing a site requires a professional engineer with a $10,000 piece of test equipment that's been certified and calibrated to actually measure real levels. Why do you think that, is 5G is different than previous generations in regard to public perception or is this just something that we've seen over and over again throughout the course of every generation of wireless? Tim, why don't you talk about that?

Tim Page: I can't speak for the first and second generations because I wasn't in wireless back then, but I'll be honest with you. I think we are the victim of our own overhype about 5G.

David Witkowski: Yes, you're right. I think there is a lot of it. Look at the Super Bowl, how much 5G advertisement was done during the Super Bowl. It was a significant percentage of the commercials that were done, so we are talking about it a lot, probably a lot more. I think you're right. We're probably talking about it orders of magnitude more than we talked about 4G. So, if we are overhyping it, then of course, it's on people's minds and maybe it becomes coincident with other things that are occurring in society and so, people begin to see correlation without causation. They just see that you're installing 5G and then ‘I started getting headaches. Well, it must be the 5G because they told me that they were going to install 5G’. JoAnna, what are your thoughts on that?

JoAnna Wang: I think I agree with what both of you guys are saying, in part. There's definitely some level of marketing hype that has made people perceive 5G to be different. I think, at the end of the day, we all know that the technologies are the same. Yeah, maybe we're using different frequencies, but it's all part of the electromagnetic spectrum. 5G has this hype around it, this idea that it's different. It's cutting edge. It's sexy, right? That notion of what it's pushing and also what 5G brings for future opportunities, whether it's new ways of living, new ways of interacting with the world, right, augmented reality, self-driving cars, applications we can't even imagine yet. For those that are not ready to accept that as a way of life, they're resistant to it whether it's 4G or 5G or 6G or whatever it looks like.

David Witkowski: I think you made a couple of very interesting points. Certainly, our species, our planet has been bathed in electromagnetic radiation since the sun first sparked to life, and we have, over the course of the last century, added numerous forms of electromagnetic radiation to our lives, ranging all the way back to electricity. In the late 1800s when commercial electricity and the electric lightbulb were first invented, people were afraid of it. A woman by the name of Linda Simon, a professor at Skidmore College, wrote an excellent book called "Dark Light." It was a history of, essentially, technology that began with the invention of electricity and how people were afraid of electricity. They thought that it would disrupt their body rhythms. They thought that the electric light was going to hurt their eyes. There were experts, doctors at the time who insisted that electric light was going to cause everyone to go blind, or it was going to disrupt sleep patterns. It was going to give people headaches. You could take what people were saying in that time and replace lightbulbs with 5G, and they would essentially be saying the same things. Prior to cellular, I worked in the public safety world where we did towers for police and fire and people grew concerned about towers that were miles away from their home, but they would express concerns. Then, as cellular began to densify the network-- and for the benefit of audience, densification is adding technology into a coverage area that already has some coverage to improve the performance-- densification gives you more data, gives you faster data. It gives you faster latency, faster response times. And, so, as these sites have been placed closer to humans, we've had this reaction to that technology, and people, maybe they were okay with a tower miles away from their home, but now they're afraid because it's on the pole next to their home when they get into their car. I think part of the challenge is that we haven't really thought through what these networks are doing for us in today's world. How has 4G broadband, 4G LTE made our lives better, and how do we then communicate the value of 5G to the public? How will they understand the value of that? Tim, why don't you go ahead and offer some thoughts on that?

Tim Page: Well, I'm going to say something pretty controversial, and it's this: There's no market for 5G. There's no market for 5G. So, what do I mean by that? The needs of most US consumers are already met. They have connectivity. They have internet access. They can do online banking. They can access multiple popular apps. What do they need 5G for? Until you make that demand-- and I'll give you an example, so, we see these very beautiful advertisements every September when Apple comes out, Samsung comes out. I can't even keep track of where Samsung is at. I think Apple is up to 11. What do they advertise? They advertise the cameras on the phones. They don't advertise the functionality, the broadband speed, how much more data you can get on them. So, I'm the average consumer and I am seeing a commercial for a new $1200 phone and unless it does something drastically different than what I have now, I'm not going to buy a new phone. So, I think you have this..th industry is trying to sell a technology that its endpoint, its consumer, is really not interested in, doesn't really have a desire to engage in.

David Witkowski: That is very true, and I think that's, in my experience, what has happened is that people think of 5G as just making their phone faster, and for some people, perhaps the industry has done too good of a job at making the network faster. 4G LTE Advanced has really delivered performance levels that, for most people are sufficient, but I think you're touching on exactly what I believe the problem is. Most people are seeing 5G as, ‘how is it going to affect my phone’, when in fact, 5G not only improves phone performance, it makes the economics of deployment better because you can serve more phones simultaneously with the same site, so we actually need less. In low-band 5G, for example, or mid-band 5G, you actually need fewer sites because nowadays you'd probably need several sites to put that level of capacity in, but what they don't see is the massive machine-type communication, which is for the Internet of Things. They don't see the ultra-reliable, low-latency communication, which is going to enable augmented reality, virtual reality. They don't see the fixed broadband as an alternative to their DSL or their cable broadband provider for their home use, and I think we're not doing a good job at communicating these new ideas to the public and how are they going to impact their daily lives. But I also believe that, sometimes I joke that the CEOs of those companies that are going to take advantage of those other things in 5G, they're probably still in high school. It's going to be a few years before they go through college, come up with their ideas, get together, ‘hey, let's form a company, we've got this idea on how we're going to use this 5G network’. So, in order to build those new technologies, of course, the network has to exist, and I think we're in that bootstrapping phase. So, JoAnna, what are your thoughts on that?

JoAnna Wang: I think this question is extremely timely right now given what's going on in the world with this pandemic. Everybody's stuck at home. They're saying that parents shouldn't expect children to go back to school until maybe early next year, right? What are we doing to help support the education system, the health system to make sure that, while remote, we can still access these services? I've seen and read about ways that the education system can change because of 5G, the idea that you can make an atom come to life through virtual reality so that students aren't reading. They're not learning just from words on a paper, but there's a visual there. Every child learns differently and if we can make difficult physics concepts tangible through augmented reality from your home so that children don't have to be at schools, while there is definitely a benefit for the social interaction that you get from it, I think this forced distance learning is really having us re-evaluate what we can do in the interim to make sure that we're not leaving children behind. We continue to give them opportunities to expand and grow and learn in the midst of all this chaos. I think if we focus on those, the telehealth opportunities, remote elective surgeries that couldn't be done at the hospital right now, but they're still very much life-threatening or important to a person's lifestyle, I think by emphasizing those, we kind of start to get the consumers to understand this is not just about your phone performance. This is about impacting how you interact with the world in ways that consumers can't fully wrap their heads around yet. Like you mentioned, the people that are probably going to develop the innovative ways, the new technologies, really are probably the ones that are in high school right now. I think that's poignant in that we need to have these networks first before those children, those high schoolers, can really get to a point where they come up with something novel.

David Witkowski: I think an analogy for me is, I'm a bicyclist, and there's, of course, been a lot of talk about making cities more bike-friendly in order to encourage bicyclists. So, we've built bike lanes throughout our city, and now we're asking people to bike to work. Certainly, if you ask everyone to bike to work without building the bike lanes, they wouldn't do it because they would say, well, it's dangerous. I can't put myself at risk at that level, riding on a very busy street without any kind of, at least maybe an illusion of protection, but that green line somehow or other is supposed to keep you safe. Well, I feel better riding on a street that is at least painted to show where I'm supposed to be as opposed to taking my life in my hands on a street with nothing or having to ride on a sidewalk. So, if we don't build the lanes, meaning the network, we can't encourage behavior change. We can't build these new things because the network doesn't exist. We can't come up with the ideas before we have the network. The network has to be in place, and of course, that's exactly what happened with 4G. 4G was started six years before the iPhone was even released, so we talk about the smartphone as being the killer app for 4G, the thing that made 4G really valuable. Well, 4G was there before the killer app was created so we built a network and then people said, we could use that to do this thing with apps and information. All of the innovation that we now have in communications was based upon the fact that we built the network, and then people made use of it. So, I do think that we have that same situation going on right now in 5G, that we have to build the network with the features that we've talked about building it so that people can now look at that and say, ‘okay, I can see how this is useful. I'm going to make a company out of this and here's what I'm going to do’, but we don't know what those ideas are yet. It's very likely that they are not related to-- and I kind of dislike that I hear, ‘well, you can download an HD movie in two seconds’. Do I really need to do that? How often in my life do I need to download an entire move in two seconds? Probably very infrequently, if at all. But would I like to be able to have augmented reality on my phone? Maybe there's an application there that I could make use of. So, yeah, I do believe that we have to expand our thinking beyond, ‘is this just going to make your phone faster’ and that's what the public has to understand, and frankly, that's what the marketers have to do. So, one thing you touched on, JoAnna, that was really interesting to me was this distance learning because that's something that I have actually been working on since we went into the shelter in place. School districts, county supervisors, we've had innumerable calls from people who are asking us for help in that regard, and I think that, in some cases, we're actually having to ask the question, ‘how can we quickly deploy in places where we do not have the networks’ because, let's be honest, even in the Silicon Valley, there are places that don't have 4G connectivity. A school district might say, ‘well, I'm going to hand out a hotspot to all of our students’. Ask me what I think about that, and I'd say, it depends upon the carrier because you may not have that service. If I go with Carrier A for my hotspots and I handed it to somebody who lives in an area where Carrier A does not have coverage, then what's the point? They would have to leave their home, go to another location to use it, and of course, they're not supposed to do that with the shelter-in-place orders. So how would we augment that network? Well, there's a variety of ways. Certainly, we can put in temporary cell sites, and even some of the areas that we've talked about doing some of this in, more rural areas, would be to fly a balloon, like what they call an aerostat, put it out at about 2,000 feet. It's a tethered balloon anchored to a vehicle on the ground. You feed it with power and fiber, and you can fly a cell site on it, and they have like a 5,000-square-mile coverage area, so figure like 25 miles in radius in any direction, which is great except that 4G doesn't support that many simultaneous sessions and that 4G has a limitation. So, how are we going to do that? I can say, yeah, sure, I've got a 4G site on a balloon flying over a city, but I know I'm going to cover more than 200 people at any given time they're going to, 200 people are trying to use that site, which presents a problem. Now, 5G offers the ability to support millions of simultaneous users, and so, just in that one example 5G would offer me the ability to solve a problem that I cannot fix with 4G, right, and unfortunately, there aren't a whole lot of 5G client devices out there right now where this might actually be something that we would be working on. But if this pandemic had occurred two years from now I think we'd be looking at a very different response to that. The other thing that I think we get into is how important is this to the country as a whole. We've heard the Administration, the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, countries have argued that 5G is critical, we have to do this, and there was even an idea floated at one time, as I recall it came out of National Security Council, and somebody leaked a memo where the government was talking about making 5G a national program akin to the U.S. Interstate Highway System or the Apollo Space Program, that would be something that would be done by the government, and, of course, it got shot down and people were very averse to the notion of the government building the 5G network. But, there's also the counterargument to that, that it's too important to be left to private investment, or if it's not going to be nationalized it should at least be heavily regulated to make sure that everyone has access to it.