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Local governments prepare for 5G 

Crushingly fast 5G mobile phone networks are available only in limited locations in an even more limited number of cities. Rochester won't be one of them for a while.

But Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and others are already starting to market the technology here. And they've been making the case that this next-generation technology isn't just about extremely fast data on ever-more-powerful mobile phones. The technology will enable a world of interconnected devices: You'll be able to cruise the city streets in your driverless vehicle while you download an ultra-high-definition film in a matter of seconds and check on how many ice-cubes are left in your internet-connected freezer.

The mobile carriers are currently rolling out 5G in their largest markets, though soon enough they'll start looking to install antennas, fiber optic cable, and other equipment in the Rochester area, especially in the city. But mobile carriers' priorities don't always align with local interests, and that could mean a rough entry for 5G.

Already, Verizon is suing the City of Rochester in federal court over city laws governing how telecommunications infrastructure and equipment can be installed in public rights of way. To build up 5G networks, Verizon and other mobile providers need to run new cables under streets and sidewalks and put new transmitters on poles located on along city streets. 

The city's laws include permitting, review, and infrastructure sharing requirements, but they aren't the focus of the lawsuit. Verizon wants a federal court to overturn the fees associated with those requirements. City officials, as would be expected, are defending the law.

"The City of Rochester is dedicated to ensuring its infrastructure is protected and maintained to benefit taxpayers," city spokesperson Justin Roj said in a statement. "Other communications providers are complying with the law while building out their networks and paying the necessary fees. These fees are comparable to what other cities required. The city is confident in our position against this frivolous lawsuit."

City officials aren't commenting on the matter beyond that statement. The conflict, however, is an extension of a debate happening in cities across the country: how to balance disruptive construction with the benefits of a consumer technology that also promises smarter traffic systems, more efficient utilities, and a leap forward in telecommunications.

The current generation of mobile networks — 4G for short — rely mostly on large cell towers. By contrast, 5G relies on small installations the size of pizza boxes attached to poles and buildings.

But the 5G small cells don't have the range the old cell towers. They have to be located no more than a few blocks apart or coverage and network speeds begin to suffer. And each small cell system has to be hooked into a carrier's system using fiber optic cable, as well as into a power supply. The city, especially, faces an influx of new equipment.

City officials are concerned about the cost of maintaining pavement, grass strips, sidewalks, medians, and other publicly-owned areas if they're repeatedly dug up to run cable, especially if the companies don't do an adequate job restoring them. Officials are also concerned about maintaining city-owned poles with several companies' small cell systems installed on them.

The city requires a $1,500 fee to attach a small cell system to one of its poles; $1,000 if the company installs a pole and gives it to the city. The City of Buffalo charges companies $2,00 a year to put small cells on a city-owned pole and $500 a year to put one on a pole or structure it doesn't own.

Rochester also charges fees for companies to install new equipment under streets, sidewalks, or other public rights of way.

Verizon's lawsuit argues that the fees are excessive and that they aren't based on the city's actual costs. It argues that the laws run afoul of federal laws and FCC regulations that say local governments can't prohibit telecom companies from using public rights of way. Verizon is basically trying to argue that the city is making it too expensive to install 5G in Rochester.

Ultimately, the courts will decide whether that's the case.

Rochester isn't the only community trying to prepare for the arrival of new wireless infrastructure. The Village of Webster, for example, has been working on a new telecommunications facility law, which lays out permit requirements and review procedures. It also includes fees, although instead of setting specific amounts, the law requires the applicant to pay for all review costs.

Spencerport officials are developing laws that would establish a review process for anyone who wants to attach small cell installations to poles or other structures. The village wants to be ahead of 5G infrastructure, in part because it has municipal electric and owns utility poles around the village, says Mayor Gary Penders.

The village expects that wireless companies will want to lease space on them, he says. But the village also needs to make sure things like power line clearance are addressed.

And like others, Penders is concerned about the potential disruptions caused by underground work. He understands how 5G networks can enable new technology; the infrastructure work just needs to be done properly, he says.

"You've got to have a little control over it," Penders says.

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