If you’re among the 35,000 daily drivers who pass Mockingbird Station in Dallas, you might have a lingering question: What’s that series of giant electric toothbrushes doing in the boulevard of Mockingbird Lane?
Well, they look more like steel streetlight utility poles with enlarged torsos, but you get the idea.
Those are utility poles. But the utility they’re bringing—beyond illumination—isn’t readily apparent. Beneath their metal skin, these poles are bristling with antennae that boost the flow of cellular data in Dallas, improving cellphone reception, speeding download times, and allowing the City of Dallas to deploy synchronizing traffic controllers and other smart-city technologies.
The poles represent more than just a clever way to disguise signal boosters: They are key elements to establishing 5G, ultra-high-speed wireless data flow, which is used by autonomous cars, advanced traffic control devices, and even drones that can deliver lifesaving drugs or defibrillators to patients in need.
These towers are also manifestations of a sizable public/private project involving 32 cities, major telecom carriers, and Crown Castle International Corp., a 25-year-old company that deploys and maintains miles of fiber optic cable and hundreds of towers and small cells that extend the internet to homes, businesses, phones and anything else online.
Crown Castle Director of Government Affairs Mandy Derr compares the installation of 5G small cells in cities to the placement of indoor lighting in a house.
“Where there are specific areas that need more illumination, you need a desk light,” he said. “Small cells add more coverage and capacity to those areas that need it.”
New, data-hungry tech—autonomous vehicles and other drones, virtual reality gear, etc.—requires a vast amount of data, and 5G connectivity is key in making it happen (most U.S. consumers are used to 4G connections, found in wireless broadband, which is sufficient for high-speed internet, high-def TV and live streaming).
Yet installing individual “desk lights”—or, actually, small cells—everywhere needed for 5G service would potentially litter the cityscape. Not to mention that different cell providers need their own small cell antennae.
That’s not to mention the regulations of each community where these small cells will need to be installed.
There ought to be a law
In 2017, the Texas Legislature was one of the first in the nation to draft a law that established a framework that allows wireless network companies to work with cities to place small cells in public right-of-ways.
Before the passage of SB1004, Crown Castle, Verizon and others working in the wireless space had to navigate a maze of regulations established on a city-by-city basis, many of which varied based on local zoning codes and historic districts and even competed with traffic signals.
5G tech has expanded rapidly in some Texas cities since the passage of SB1004, according to according to an analysis by the Texas Comptroller’s office.
As of November 2020, Dallas was second only to Houston for the number of approved 5G sites.
Derr said that community demand has driven Dallas, Houston and others to engage in 5G technology. Cities that install 5G networks will have a vast technological advantage over those that don’t, he added.
Smart-traffic-management technology, which synchronizes stop light patterns based on traffic patterns, is just one example.
“With the exception of a few cities in the state, what we’ve found isn’t that cities have been purposely slow or hesitant to embrace 5G technology, but rather that capital is naturally flowing to communities where industry collaboration is sought after and local regulations and policy for 5G-enabling technology are easy to navigate, like Dallas and Houston,” he wrote to Dallas Innovates.
Avoiding a forest of towers
Not long after SB1004 passed, the city of Dallas collaborated with Crown Castle and cellular providers to design the 800 smart poles found on Mockingbird Lane and across the city of Dallas, Derr said.
Those poles house antennae from multiple providers, not to mention street lighting, or other services. They also might be heading to Frisco, which has extensive smart-city projects.
“Crown Castle and other small cell providers have worked with the city to help clean up the roadside streetlight infrastructure,” wrote Catherine Cuellar, director of communications for the city of Dallas. Factors in the design included the aesthetics of the surroundings, she added.
“Also, Crown Castle and other small cell providers chose to provide electric power to the city equipment at a few of the Integrated streetlight pole locations that were within the (city’s) streetlight Wi-Fi pilot projects,” she wrote to Dallas Innovates.
That power supply allowed the city to quickly deploy public Wi-Fi where it was needed, she added.
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