5G: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Along with the positives of new technologies often come unintended—or previously unidentified—complications. NAHB recently reported on the potential land use implications of electric car charging stations and their accompanying infrastructure. Another new mobile broadband technology called 5G may impact land use in a similar manner.

What is 5G, and how is it different than 4G?

Across the United States, there is a network of fourth generation mobile technology known as 4G. Commonly seen in the corner of a smart phone, 4G has greatly contributed to the widespread use of mobile devices today. 5G, or fifth generation wireless, is the next step in the evolution of wireless tech; major carriers are advertising, preparing for and carrying out a nationwide roll-out. Sascha Segan of PCMag reports that, “5G brings three new aspects to the table: bigger channels (to speed up data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).

Another unique feature of 5G is that it offers three band widths based on speeds and range: low-band, mid-band and high-band. The differences in these products, what they provide and where they are located is where the relevance to land use begins.

The typical size of 4G cell towers range from 50 to 200 feet in height, and are located often in industrial or commercial areas. Their coverage range allows towers to be spaced miles apart as well. 5G, on the other hand, particularly the mid- and high-band cells, incorporates “small cells” that are smaller in size and must be installed closer together to support their high-power but short range.  This will create a network of small cell sites with antennas as close as few hundred feet apart, potentially in residential areas.

5G Tower in Denver, CO. Photo courtesy of Craig Karn, Consilium Design

5G small cells often resemble small utility boxes and attach to poles shorter than that of 4G. Along with the performance benefits of 5G, including higher data rates, lower latency and increased capacity, 5G has the potential to improve connectivity to education and rural internet access. 5G may also improve efficiency for increasingly-digital industries, like green energy production.

The FCC Paves the Way for 5G

In 2018, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued an order that aims to accelerate deployment of 5G mainly by limiting state and local governments’ powers to regulate their installation.

The order changes the status quo by limiting local government authority to regulate new wireless infrastructure. For the first time, localities can pass 5G wireless siting ordinances only if they are 1) reasonable; 2) no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure; and 3) objective and published in advance. The order restricts communities who may wish to use minimum spacing requirements, aesthetic guidelines and/or underground requirements for 5G. It also caps the amount cities can charge for installation and implements a “shot clock,” where jurisdictions must respond to a provider’s application to install a cell site within a 60- or 90- day period based on the type of installation.

Community Concerns

Local wireless ordinances often go hand in hand with common community concerns regarding neighborhood character and property values. Concerns on the aesthetics, and even some questions on the unknown health effects as well, of 5G wireless towers have already prompted residents to form action groups.

Rooted in the concerns is the fact that some 5G towers or cells must be placed within relatively short distances of each other – and the uncertainty of what that will look like for residential areas. In urban areas, it is easy to imagine new infrastructure hidden on top of buildings or on already existing street poles. They become less concealable in a neighborhood where the only available public right-of-way is the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb.

Some have speculated on the impact 5G will have on rural areas, potentially closing the technology access gap that currently exists relative to urban areas. Yet, due to its densely spaced nature, 5G is most effective in densely populated areas where towers can be easily installed near or on existing infrastructure. Smaller cells could hypothetically be placed in rural neighborhoods, but it is important to keep in mind that a cell may only cover about 0.03 square miles each.

Community Response

In response to the FCC order, some communities are attempting to have some say when it comes to 5G infrastructure installation.

Many localities have for decades adopted ordinances that attempt to regulate wireless cell sites. For example, New York City’s Building Code prescribes standards for location, access and construction of 5G infrastructure, and the city’s Technical Policy and Procedure Notice regulates size, height and area of cellular antennas.

Montgomery County, Maryland appealed the FCC order on the public health basis that the Commission is rushing the deployment of hundreds of thousands of 5G cells into public spaces without reexamining its own radiofrequency safety standards, which have not been updated since 1996. One of Montgomery County’s appeals is based on the obligation of the FCC to evaluate public health risks under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. As of March 2020, some see Montgomery County’s aversion to intervene in an appeal filed by the Environmental Health Trust as an acceptance of the order.

Citizens of Baton Rouge, Louisiana are preparing an ordinance in attempt to have some control over the location of 5G cell towers. In response to the little-to-no advanced warning communities are receiving of the nationwide rollout, the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Association is attempting to require telecommunication companies to provide advanced notice of proposed structures. An additional piece of the ordinance would prioritize certain locations such as existing utility poles or support structures for 5G cells to reduce impact by taking advantage of existing infrastructure. 5G installation in residential areas would be of last resort if approved.

In San Jose, California, the city is working with mobile provider companies to help address the rural internet access gap. The city has a plan to charge the companies for permits on utility poles and use the permit revenue to connect 50,000 new households with a local Digital Inclusion Fund. The FCC order prompted nearly 100 local cities in the Bay Area to challenge the FCC’s local jurisdictional power as well.

With a nationwide spread of 5G, and its potential impacts on land in urban, rural and residential areas, it is as important as ever to stay informed with the latest land use issues and solutions. NAHB offers a variety of resources relating to land use and housing, from new trends and local responses, to tools that promote affordable housing and great design. The Land Use 101 Toolkit contains credentialed reports and presentations that can be used in local community conversations on land use and development.

For more information on this topic and land use issues, contact Nicholas Julian, program manager, land use at NAHB.

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