Small 5G transmitters are showing up in Treasure Valley without notice. Here’s why.

5G will impact so much more than your phone

What is 5G? In its simplest terms, it's the next generation of cellular networking. But 5G will have an impact on a lot more than just how quickly your phone downloads files or plays videos.
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What is 5G? In its simplest terms, it's the next generation of cellular networking. But 5G will have an impact on a lot more than just how quickly your phone downloads files or plays videos.

Preparations are underway to bring the future of wireless internet to the Treasure Valley.

Over the past two years, Verizon representatives have worked with officials in Ada County and Boise on new ordinances that will allow the company to deliver 5G cell service using transmitters mounted on telephone poles and streetlights.

4G networks ushered in an era of photo and video-based apps like Snapchat and Instagram, and allowed for responsive GPS technologies. 5G, or fifth-generation, wireless could allow for downloads of a gigabit per second or more, AT&T and Verizon have said. Cell phone companies say 5G will enable technology like self-driving cars and could allow someone to download entire films in mere seconds.

A 5G signal’s bandwidth for data is greater, but it reaches a smaller area — about a 1,500 foot radius, compared with a few miles for 4G signal. That means that along with today’s 200-foot cell towers, 5G networks will require new “small cells,” using wireless transmitters about the size of mini fridges, throughout their service areas. The transmitters come in boxes small enough to attach to the tops of existing poles or to place on rooftops.

“They’re hiding in plain sight,” Verizon spokesman Steve Van Diner said in a telephone interview.

Verizon already has installed some small cells and is using them to beef up its 4G networks, since they can handle both technologies. That may improve 4G customers’ experiences. When a large cell tower gets heavy use, you might have trouble downloading data in a crowd even if the signal is strong. The small cells dispersed throughout the city will help, Van Diner said.

A small-cell canister is attached to the top of a light pole at the intersection of 8th and West Bannock streets in Downtown Boise. Kate Talerico

T-Mobile and Sprint have also begun installing the small cells, said Ryan McKell, a Meridian city planner. A spokeswoman for AT&T declined to say whether AT&T was installing small cells around the Treasure Valley.

Often the transmitters are placed in busy areas. One stands on the roof of the Downtown Boise YMCA at 1050 W. State St, just across the street from data-hungry students at Boise High School.

It’s unclear how many small-cell transmitters have been, and will be, installed in the Valley. Van Diner declined to disclose numbers. “They’ll be in the Downtown area, anywhere where there are going to be a large number of people,” Van Diner said. “We may also work with developers as they build subdivisions, stadiums — anywhere there will be a dense population.”

Localities nationwide have battled with the federal government over how to regulate the small-cell transmitters. Telecommunications companies successfully lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to issue a rule last September that limits how much cities and counties can charge telecoms for permits to use local rights of way. The rule also requires local governments to issue permits within 60 days.

Verizon hired Boise lobbyist Mark Estess to press for an Ada County ordinance that streamlines the local permitting process. The Board of County Commissioners adopted the ordinance in January. It allows telecom companies to bypass public hearings, which are required for new cell towers, and directly seek administrative approval of the small transmitters, said Jason Boal, community planning manager for Ada County.

That means that if there’s no existing infrastructure in a location Verizon requires for its network, you could see a tall pole — not a streetlight or traffic signal, just a 30-foot pole with a canister at the top containing the hidden transmitter — pop up in your neighborhood without any warning.

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Service providers are installing new small-cell transmitters around Ada County, which send cell phone signals for a shorter distance than existing cellular transmitters and help supplement the larger cell towers. The small-cell transmitters will be needed usher in 5G networks. Kate Talerico

Some local authorities provide guidelines about the appearance of the small cells.

When companies attach equipment to an Ada County Highway District’s traffic pole, it must be the same color as the pole, said Gary Inselman, ACHD’s development services manager.

Boise’s regulations ensure that freestanding small cells cannot be placed on poles taller than 30 feet, said Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter.

“They’re pretty unobtrusive,” Journee told the Statesman. “From the street level you can’t even see them on top of buildings.”

The small cells could bring in some cash to local governments. Telecom companies needs permits to build the transmitters, and permits cost money. If the companies install the equipment on property they don’t own, they must lease that space . The Ada County Highway District, for example, charges a one-time $500 application fee for each small cell, a $750 annual fee to place a small cell on ACHD equipment like a telephone pole, and $375 for ACHD to place it on a third-party site, such as Idaho Power property.

Ada County (not the highway district) charges $100 to put a small cell on its own equipment. Boise charges about $400, and Meridian $453.

Telecoms proposed to install the cells on 85 ACHD locations. Of those, 41 were approved and seven have been completed, according to ACHD spokeswoman Natalie Shaver. Meridian has approved 30 sites for the small cells, said Ryan McKell, a city planner. In Boise, telecoms have proposed small cells for six Boise-owned sites, but none have followed through, Journee said.

Cell tower that looks like tree June 2018 off Federal Way IMG_0642.jpg
Cellular towers are unsightly, so sometimes they masquerade as trees. This installation occurred last June on Federal Way just west of its junction with Capitol Boulevard near the northern edge of the Boise Bench. (The tracks in the foreground belong to the Union Pacific Railroad; the Boise Depot is about a quarter mile to the west.) David Staats

Elsewhere in the Treasure Valley, permitting is proceeding more slowly. Canyon County has yet to permit any small cells, and Nampa is reviewing its permitting process around the technology, their spokespeople told the Statesman.

5G still has a way to go before it reaches Idaho. Van Diner said Verizon has launched 5G service in only four cities, and he declined to say when Verizon will launch in Boise.

The company told the Wall Street Journal that a real rollout of 5G mobile services is still a few years away. No phones are currently equipped to communicate over a 5G network, which is why Verizon is first experimenting with in-home 5G wifi service.

In cities that already have seen large-scale installments of small-cell transmitters, some residents have objected. One Bay Area city, Mill Valley, voted to block deployments of the transmitters after residents expressed concern about the health effects of 5G signals.

An Idaho anti-vaccination group, Health Freedom Idaho, also contends that small cells could harm health. The group has spoken out against the streamlined rollout, which it says doesn’t give Idahoans a chance to object to the antennas being placed next to their homes.

Cellular signals, like all radio signals, are forms of radiation, and as 5G technology makes mobile networks more ubiquitous, exposure will likely increase. But research has not established a clear link between cancer and cellphone radiation exposure. Most telecommunications firms say the transmitters have no effect on health.

Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.