California cities meet wave of mobile carrier land grabs

by Steve Blum • , , ,

I’ve been involved in several meetings between mobile infrastructure companies and staff from various California cities over the past couple of months. There’s a new gold rush going on now. And mobile carriers – Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint – are running around trying to do deals with cities ahead of 5G and pre-5G network upgrades. They want to put “small cells” on street lights and other city-owned vertical assets. Deals which might be preempted in their favor by SB 649 anyway.

What they want is to lock up real estate years ahead of actual construction. The networks won’t be fully built for 10 to 20 years, but if they can claim vertical assets, right of way and other prime locations now, they’ll be in a controlling position in any given city for a couple of decades.

5G networks rely on lots of small, short-range cell sites. Short range means you can have a lot more cells in a given area, which means the radio frequency bandwidth (also known as spectrum) can be re-used over and over.

For example, suppose you had one big cell tower that covered an entire city, which used all the spectrum a carrier has, and that amount of spectrum had a total capacity of 300 Mbps (e.g. you might have 300 people each watching their own 1 Mbps video stream at the same time). Then you replace it with 100 small cells, each with a 100 Mbps capacity and arranged so that the particular frequencies each uses doesn’t interfere or overlap with its neighbor.

All of a sudden you’ve gone from 300 Mbps total city capacity to 10,000 Mbps. That’s a too-simple example, but the principle applies.

There is no 5G technology standard currently, although there might be by the end of the year. Even so, it’ll be three to five years before the equipment is developed and proven, and then put into mass production and deployed on a large scale. In the meantime, these companies are trying to lay a claim to lots of sites for later, while using a few now that rely on current 4G technology (although they play egregious word games with that).

It’s a good idea for cities to work with mobile carriers and infrastructure companies, but it’s essential to do it in a way that creates a level playing field for everyone – incumbent mobile carriers and their vendors as well as the new ventures and technologies that are on the way – and doesn’t allow one player to lock up street lights, right of way and other real estate they won’t use for years. Given the level of local preemption activity going on in Sacramento and Washington, it makes sense for local governments to use the leverage they have while they have it.