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September 27, 2023

Agreement paves way for expanded 5G deployment in CT metro downtowns

IMAGE | CONTRIBUTED Gov. Ned Lamont has made 5G deployment across Connecticut a top priority.

After more than a year of mediation, Connecticut’s five largest cities have reached an agreement settling ground rules for the placement of 5G “small cell” wireless technology in their respective downtowns.

The deal smooths the way for telecom carriers to install 5G transmitters on city-owned light poles and other municipal infrastructure — clearing out existing blind spots in urban cores.

The agreement between the carriers — including AT&T and Verizon — and the cities of Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport and Stamford was mediated with help from Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, with the final outline settled in August.

The settlement comes as the Lamont administration continues to make 5G rollout across Connecticut a key priority.

In his inaugural State of the State address in 2019, Lamont said he wanted Connecticut’s cities to be the first in New England with access to 5G mobile networks. He also proposed and then signed into law legislation that streamlines the approval process for placing 5G communications equipment on state land.

Lamont said the technology, which promises higher-speed internet service and better connectivity, will have significant economic-development benefits that help draw new companies to the state.

5G service, advocates have said, could support major steps forward in virtual and augmented reality applications, industrial automation, connected devices (internet of things) and driverless cars, among other benefits.

“When compared to today’s wireless networks, 5G networks are up to five times more responsive, up to 100 times faster, and allow up to 100 times more devices to be connected, opening up multiple benefits for residents, businesses, public safety departments, and educational institutions,” Lamont said in 2019.

One concern with the 5G rollout, however, has been the approval process for attaching communications equipment to utility poles. Utility and telecommunications companies in Connecticut have complained over the years about extended delays in that process.

At the outset of their deployment efforts, wireless companies estimated they’d need to install about 300,000 minifridge-sized antennas, often called small cells, in the U.S. to provide adequate 5G service coverage.

Some local residents have raised red flags about how small cells will impact the appearance of their neighborhoods. Others have raised concerns that the radiation small cells emit could have negative health effects.

A January 2021 5G technology forum hosted by the Hartford City Council drew several experts who raised concerns about 5G technology, including a Canadian doctor who said there are studies linking electromagnetic energy and cancer.

Carriers argue radio frequencies generated by 5G technology are well under exposure limits set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC’s website says “no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.”

Federal law largely restricts the ability of state and local governments to block the installation of wireless facilities over radio-frequency concerns.

A 2018 ruling by the FCC gave governing bodies a 90-day window to rule on applications for new 5G facilities, and 60 days for applications asking to locate equipment next to existing small cell infrastructure.

Hartford ready to ratify

Hartford is the first city to move to ratify the new agreement, with Mayor Luke Bronin seeking the City Council’s blessing to sign.

“The transformative capabilities of 5G technology — including ultra-high-speed data transmission and exceptional network reliability — can foster job creation, help bridge the digital divide, and solidify cities as dynamic hubs of technological progress and economic activity,” Bronin wrote in a Sept. 11 memo to council members.

AT&T filed a federal lawsuit against Hartford in December 2021, accusing the city of slow-rolling its application for the placement of small cell wireless facilities on downtown, city-owned light poles. The city argued it had followed procedures and that AT&T had not properly filed its application.

John Emra

A 2022 settlement eventually allowed AT&T to place small cell devices on seven poles around Hartford’s central business district, specifically near the XL Center. At the moment, AT&T doesn’t plan to add additional downtown Hartford devices, but that could change in the future, said John Emra, president of AT&T Northeast.

The recently hatched agreement with the cities will govern any future small cell antennas added in downtown Hartford, Emra said.

Emra said 5G signals are already available across much of the state, including in cities, because the signal can be pushed from traditional cell towers — in a process controlled by the Connecticut Siting Council — and through small cell transmitters on utility-owned wooden poles — through a process governed by Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

The new agreement will help carriers “fill the gaps” by setting up a standardized framework for using municipal light poles in core downtown areas that don’t have utility poles, Emra said.

“It’s really in central business corridors that we needed to deploy,” said Emra, who credited the Lamont administration for its push to advance 5G connectivity in Connecticut.

Emra said 5G deployment in urban cores will make them more competitive and serve a growing population of downtown residents.

“People want connectivity everywhere they go,” Emra said. “They want good connectivity. And if you can’t provide that, it is a disadvantage to any place that doesn’t have it.”

New Haven Economic Development Officer Dean Mack said cities were able to collectively negotiate important “wins” with the new agreement. For example, carriers need to supply municipalities with maps outlining their 5G deployment plans and meet with city representatives annually to explain those plans.

That gives municipalities a window into potential concerns. It also allows them to better coordinate with carriers on any potential road work, Mack said.

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