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January 21, 2019

Gov. Lamont wants CT to be a leader in 5G mobile networks, but his aspirations face significant hurdles

Phtoos | AP Gov. Ned Lamont aspires to help bring 5G networks to Connecticut cities as soon as possible. Experts say any such effort will likely have to address contentious regulatory topics like utility-pole access and the spread of miniature cell phone towers in neighborhoods and urban areas.
Photo | AP
Photo | HBJ File John Emra, AT&T Connecticut president, said his company and other carriers could use some help speeding up infrastructure-siting discussions at the municipal level.

In his inaugural State of the State address this month, Gov. Ned Lamont said he wants Connecticut's cities to be the first in New England with access to fifth-generation, or “5G,” mobile networks.

Lamont, an entrepreneur who founded, led and eventually sold a satellite cable company that served college campuses, said bringing 5G to Connecticut would be part of a broader strategy to attract Millennials, talent and new companies to the state.

5G, which promises internet speeds many times faster than the 4G networks that many smartphones use today, could allow consumers to download high-definition movies in mere seconds. But major telecom providers say the service will potentially have much more significant economic-development benefits, including supporting major steps forward in virtual and augmented reality applications, industrial automation, connected devices (“internet of things”) and driverless cars.

“The telecommunication companies are ready to start building — let's harness that excitement,” Lamont said in his Jan. 9 speech, adding that he also wants to help bring faster internet to rural towns, which tend to have more limited options than denser communities.

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon have been jockeying for pole positions in the race to deploy 5G networks.

There's plenty of hype about the service, but it's still early. 5G has just begun to roll out on a limited basis in certain major cities, and carriers say they plan to start debuting the first 5G-enabled smartphones this year.

“5G deployments for nationwide coverage are going to take a few years,” said Mark Hung, research vice president at Stamford-based research and advisory firm Gartner.

Still, he added, many regions are competing to get in on the ground floor.

Lamont hasn't offered up any policy proposals. In a statement, his spokeswoman Maribel La Luz said the 5G aspiration is “a matter of equity and workforce development” and that Lamont intends to convene the telecom industry, employers and residents to determine how to best approach the effort.

It will be up to carriers just how fast they roll out 5G, and where, but several reacted to Lamont's statement with enthusiasm.

“I'm thrilled, frankly,” AT&T Connecticut President John Emra said in an interview. “I think it's great to see the governor understanding the importance of communications technology.”

In a statement, Verizon said it shares the governor's desire to bring 5G to the state.

“It will take active cooperation between private industry and state, federal, and local government to make Connecticut attractive for the infrastructure investment needed to enhance 4G network capacity and prepare for 5G,” Verizon said.

However, that cooperation is sometimes lacking. Experts and officials say Connecticut has made important strides that could help quicken 5G deployment, but major hurdles remain before the state can distinguish itself as an early adopter.

Infrastructure build-out delays

One important distinction about 5G technology is that it uses higher-frequency bandwidths to transmit signals.

That matters because higher frequency signals can't travel as far as those from big cell phone towers, so network operators have to install lots of smaller antennas — an estimated 300,000 nationwide in the next few years, according to wireless industry group CTIA — for 5G to work.

Carriers say those minifridge-sized antennas, often called “small cells,” are also crucial in helping them meet ever-increasing demand for mobile data on their existing 4G networks.

Another key piece of infrastructure for 4G and 5G networks is the fiber-optic cable that connects small cells to carriers' communication networks.

There have been frustrations in Connecticut when it comes to building-out small cells and fiber. The problems have been caused in part by a ramp-up in activity, as fiber companies and carriers seek to address growing demand for mobile data and plan for a 5G future.

The approval process for attaching communications equipment to utility poles in the state has been beset with “dysfunction and in-fighting that has resulted in chronic and systemic delays,” which has hurt competition, Consumer Counsel Elin Katz wrote in a recent letter to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA), which shares oversight of utility poles with the Connecticut Siting Council.

Fiber troubles

An example of Katz's concerns can be found in the experience of a new entrant to Connecticut's high-speed internet market, NetSpeed LLC, which is in the midst of building-out approximately 100 miles of fiber in West Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport and Hamden.

In a November PURA filing, NetSpeed (which markets itself as GoNetspeed) alleged that pole owners United Illuminating and Frontier Communications had failed to act on dozens of its applications, dating as far back as March 2018, to attach its infrastructure to their poles, well exceeding various PURA-mandated approval timelines.

NetSpeed said the delays have hurt its ability to market its new broadband service to potential customers.

“As a result, the customer take rate has lagged behind the rates in other markets served by NetSpeed outside Connecticut,” the company told PURA. “This has exacerbated the deleterious effect of delayed revenue arising from the [pole owners'] delay.”

Later in November, Frontier sued NetSpeed, claiming it installed fiber on its poles without permission. Frontier has also protested to PURA that it only has partial control over the pole process.

United Illuminating has told PURA that a growing backlog of applications from companies seeking to attach equipment to its poles, as well as trouble communicating with its fellow pole owner Frontier, was causing delays.

Meanwhile, Frontier has complained to PURA that it's been forced to absorb the cost of hiring outside contractors to process the applications.

Katz's Office of Consumer Counsel has lent its support to NetSpeed and other companies that have complained about delays in accessing utility poles.

If PURA fails to get pole owners to comply with existing rules, OCC said further dysfunction could result.

“This would in turn cause the state to be one with a reputation for insurmountable hurdles to effective broadband pole attachment and service provision by new entrants,” OCC wrote. “Connecticut cannot afford that reputation.”

Katz supports a push for 5G, but also hopes it might be paired with a strategy for bringing better internet offerings to the state's more rural areas.

Siting small cells

In 2017, PURA streamlined its process for approving the installation of small cells on utility poles, receiving praise from both municipalities and mobile carriers — parties that had largely been at odds over the issue in recent years.

“That was a very good and important decision,” AT&T's Emra said.

However, he hopes state government will step in to do more.

Emra said AT&T has many more small cells to build in the state, but it will need access to municipal and state property to do it, since a utility pole isn't always available in just the right spot for a small cell.

Though Emra didn't name names, he said AT&T sometimes has to wait months to even hear back from municipalities it's contacted about siting a small cell on a government-owned building or structure. A bifurcated system of local and state approvals slows things down, he said.

Emra said he wants the legislature to develop model licensing agreements, as has been done in several states, and direct cities and towns to follow them.

“It shouldn't take six months to a year to have introductory discussions about trying to deploy small cells in the community,” Emra said.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said cities and towns must have a role in the approval process.

“Cities and towns want to be supportive of bringing 5G into Connecticut, moving this process along in a timely way, but need a system that includes towns in the process for small-cell approvals, ensuring the protection of property rights,” said CCM spokesman Kevin Maloney.

Local residents have complained to officials about how small cells will impact the appearance of their neighborhoods. They've also expressed concerns that radiation small cells emit could have negative health effects.

Federal law restricts the ability of state and local governments to block the installation of wireless facilities over radio-frequency concerns, a fact that PURA spelled out in its 2017 pole-access streamlining decision.

Carriers say small cells are well under the exposure guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC's website says “no scientific evidence establishes a causal link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses.”

However, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Katz have urged the FCC to update its radio-frequency standards, which are now about 20 years old.

“Indeed, the No. 1 complaint from residents centers on concerns about the potential health effects of the increased [radio-frequency] emissions by the intensity, proximity, and number of new antennas anticipated,” Katz wrote to the FCC last year.

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