Infrastructure upgrades are underway in Pittsburgh to prepare the city for the next generation of wireless networks, 5G. The technology claims to be faster and better than previous iterations of digital celluar networks. Experts say 5G will be necessary to accomodate the predicted surge in mobile internet traffic, and to support the plethora of new devices on the market like smart appliances.
Part of the process involves attaching small cells — which look like miniature radio antennas — to street lights, roof tops and telephone poles in hot spots in places like Oakland, where many users are concentrated in one location. On the University of Pittsburgh campus, pedestrians can look up to see the white cylindrical cells atop street lights in various locations like Forbes Avenue.
Carnegie Mellon University assistant professor of electrical engineering Swarun Kumar said as more people access wireless networks, infrastructure needs to be updated or the system will become slow and inefficient.
Small cells are placed tyically in uban areas and are placed low to the ground and close together to add additional capacity and coverage where large cell towers aren’t feasible because of their immense size.
“The reason why small cells offer better performance is that within that range there are fewer users competing for access to the same tower, and so you can send a lot more data per user,” Kumar said.
One company that installs the infrastructure is Crown Castle, with operational headquarters at South Pointe in Canonsburg. According to Public Affairs Manager Renee Morales, 40 small cells have already been installed in the city not only in Oakland but also downtown.
"Behind the City County Building at Ross and 4th, we have a small cell installation. You couldn't put a 300 foot tower there, but we were able to put a small cell installation there," Morales said. Morales said carriers like Verizon and AT&T determine where new cells are installed and contract with companies like Crown Castle to do the work.
"Some studies point to as many as 300,000 small cells will be needed across the nation to compete globally in a 5G future," Morales added.
The approval process can take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for the installation of one small cell, Morales said. That's why efforts are underway in Harrisburg to streamline the process. House Bill 1400 would standardize permitting for installing small cells in Pennsylvania.
The bill is still in committee but not everyone supports it, including the Pennsylvania Municipal League which says the measure would pre-empt a local government's zoning authority.