Mike's Blog: 5G infrastructure arrives home sooner than expected

EE Editor Mike Hockett discusses how his home city of Madison, WI—ranked as only the 99th-fastest Internet city in the U.S.—is already installing 5G cell stations just a few weeks after Wisconsin passed its 5G technology regulation bill.

A small-cell cellular site, with antennas attached to a lamp post near U.S. Bank Stadium in advance of Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, MN. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcodeA small-cell cellular site, with antennas attached to a lamp post near U.S. Bank Stadium in advance of Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, MN. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcodeFlickr/Tony Webster

On any given day, a simple Google News search for "5G rollout" will provide you dozens of results of topic coverage from technology blog websites, business publications, and national media outlets—all from just the past few days.

We at Evaluation Engineering have also been keeping a close eye on 5G developments, but even so, recent news about it caught me by surprise. As Editor-in-Chief, I work primarily out of Madison, WI—a medium-sized city with a population of 255,000 as of 2017. Since Madison isn't one of the largest cities in the U.S., I Mike Hockett, EE Editor-in-ChiefMike Hockett, EE Editor-in-Chiefassumed it was fairly low on the totem poll of cellular service providers' prorities for rollout of 5G service or infrastructure. That was until I saw this July 31 report from local news station Channel3000 that detailed how cellular providers are starting to install 5G cell antennas on light poles in public right-of-way locations in Madison.

"Starting tomorrow, August 1, anybody who wants to install a small cell facility can apply for the permit, and we could be seeing more of these small cell facilities in areas of our community as early as two weeks," a public information officer with the City of Madison engineering department said at a meeting on July 31, according to the report.

Again, this wouldn't have been noteworthy to me if it was in regards to a larger city. But Madison wasn't one of the cities chosen for major cellular carriers' initial 5G service rollout that began in the fall of 2018, and hasn't been mentioned by AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon as one of the cities they've publicly disclosed plans to expand coverage to in the next year or so. Seattle-based Ookla’s 2019 U.S. Mobile Performance Report, which tracks mobile carrier speeds in the U.S. through the first two quarters of the year, showed that Madison places just 99th in the U.S. in terms of Internet download speed (23.79 Mbps). Wisconsin's largest city, Milwaukee, isn't substantially better at 64th. Nationwide, Wisconsin ranks 41st of the 50 states in Internet speed.

Given those statistics, and the fact that it took my home state until July 10 to enact a 5G technology regulation bill into law—allowing regulatory framework for the deployment of wireless equipment and facilities—I figured that even the infrastructure stage for 5G in Madison wouldn't begin for at least another 6 months, but apparently not.

Given this news, I now wonder how many other mid-sized cities are currently undergoing 5G infrastructure implementation. Obviously, that stage has to occur well before service can be rolled out. It also makes me wonder what kind of opposition 5G is seeing at the local level. Channel3000's report mentioned how Madison residents voiced their concerns over 5G safety and health impacts from potential microwave radiation. For typical residents who aren't tech-savvy, they may still have no idea what 5G is or how it works, so it's natural that there'd be pushback to a new technology they don't fully understand. I wish city officials tasked with calming the local public about 5G the best of luck.

Last but not least, the Madison news makes me wonder even more about the overall timeline for 5G service rollout. It makes sense to deploy 5G in the largest cities first, and continue in order of population size—which is what is happening. But that means it may still be a long time before the cell stations are installed in cities with, say, less than 30,000 residents.

Of course, even once 5G is "turned on" in Madison and any city, its usability will be very spotty at first. There's numerous videos of technology journalists testing out 5G in those bigger cities that received its service in the initial rollout, and the findings are that 5G speeds can be as good as advertised, but only when you're outside, practically right next to a cell station, and have a way to keep your 5G smartphone from overheating. This is why even when Madison gets 5G, I'll be waiting for it to get much better before I go ahead and buy a 5G-enabled phone.

Long-story-short, I'm surprised Madison is getting 5G infrastructure this soon, but I'm excited for it. And if you're in a decently-sized city that hasn't been named as one to receive 5G soon, keep an eye out for 5G cell stations regardless. They're probably coming your way soon.

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