Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-OR), House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, inquired about the federal government’s research into the potential health effects of RF radiation and the FCC’s guidelines for safe human RF exposure levels, in light of 5G rollout, in a letter last week to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the Food and Drug Administration’s acting commissioner, Norman Sharpless.
“As you know, the impending rollout of 5G technology will require the installation of hundreds of thousands of small cell sites in neighborhoods and communities around the country and these installations will emit higher-frequency radio waves than previous generations of cellular technology,” DeFazio wrote. “This means Americans will be exposed to more non-ionizing RF radiation than ever before.”
The FCC’s current RF-safety guidelines were set in 1996, DeFazio noted, and in 2012 the Government Accountability Office recommended that it should “formally reassess and, if appropriate, change its current RF energy exposure limits.” The commission has taken no action in this area.
Meanwhile, DeFazio notes the growing anxiety about RF among the public in general and in his district in particular. “States and municipalities across the country are hearing from citizens who are concerned about this technology being installed in their communities,” he wrote.
Alex Gellman, CEO and co-founder of Vertical Bridge, told AGL eDigest that there is no science-backed evidence behind the link between cell towers and health issues. The objections voiced at zoning meetings are based on emotion and misleading information downloaded from the internet, he said.
“As an industry, we should use science to counter that emotion,” Gellman said. “The facts are on our side, but that doesn’t work unless we use them. We need to use data to make our case about the safety of cell towers. The exposure from a cell tower is measured in the power output of lightbulbs. With the rising tide of conversation on this subject, we should pull out the facts.”
Allan Tantillo, vice president of new technologies at Vertical Bridge, said the deployment of large numbers of small cells has stirred up emotions surrounding the health and safety of cell towers. “We are rolling out a new technology where people are hearing about hundreds of thousands of new cell sites,” he said. “People have a hard time conceptualizing and understanding the deployment of 100,000 small cells that are 1,000 feet from them. They just hear numbers and think ‘I was kind of worried about cell towers but now they are really going flood us with even more radio waves. There’s got to be a problem.’”
The science and physics involved haven’t changed, according to Tantillo. “The small cell sites produce lower power output that previous cell tower buildouts,” he said. “The power output of a small cell on a light pole is relatively the same as what you get from many devices that you have in your home already.”
Tantillo said the wireless infrastructure industry and cellular carriers need to join together to address the health concerns. He said that when he was with T-Mobile, he was the driver behind the development of a website, www.howmobileworks.com, which educated municipalities on a number of issues relative to cell tower development. It offers conclusions based on facts about health concerns from a number of sources. Here are a few:
Gellman said individual companies should not have to go it alone in the educational process. Both the cellular companies and the infrastructure companies should align on a set of information and share that information. “The science is on our side; we just need to be good at educating,” he said.
Tantillo stressed that the industry needs to be proactive with its message and take the right tone that is conscious of people’s emotions. “We need to be prepared to provide the right set of facts to those that are making the decisions to balance out the emotional appeals,” he said. “The law doesn’t allow city officials to take health and safety into account in tower zoning hearings, but you can’t legislate emotion.”
DeFazio, however, is looking for more than just general references to scientific literature, such as the ones above. He is asking the FCC for the specific health-related studies, what gaps remain in our knowledge of the possible health effects of 5G, and the steps it has taken to educate the public about the RF radiation and safety relative to 5G technology. He seems to believe that 5G technology somehow changes the health effects of RF radiation.
“It is clear that the federal government has not been transparent enough about the current status of 5G RF radiation research and its guidelines on RF exposure limits,” he wrote. “The FCC’s and FDA’s responses to congressional inquiries on this issue have been less than satisfactory, merely reiterating general statements that 5G technology is safe without citing specific research or studies.”
Far above any band used for radio communications, alpha, beta, neutron and gamma rays and x-rays are known as ionizing radiation, which means they can damage living tissue, causing radiation burns and cancer. It is possible that the public confuses this type of radiation with radio waves from the AM band up to the millimeter-wave band, which are non-ionizing. They can only hurt you by heating up the tissue of your body. It should be noted that the FCC’s regulations set the limits to public RF exposure at 50 times below any level that is deemed to be harmful.
AGL Media Group’s J. Sharpe Smith toured the headquarters of Vertical Bridge, in Boca Raton, Florida and discussed the important issues facing the wireless infrastructure industry with Alex Gellman, CEO and co-founder, and Bernard Borghei, senior VP, operations and co-founder.
What new opportunities do you envision for wireless infrastructure?
Gellman: Verizon and AT&T are very rapidly moving to use 5G to deploy low-latency, high-definition personalized video Over The Top (OTT). That’s new. They weren’t talking about that last year. That’s a big shift of video to wireless. They did their bench testing and realized that 5G can provide the speed and low-latency to deliver video over a skinny bundle into homes without a truck roll. It’s so much cheaper and so much better for them as a business model.
So there will be pre-5G roll out of fixed point-to-multipoint delivery of Internet and Video, which will pick up at the end of this year, but will happen mostly in 2018-2019. It will be a bridge to the traditional 5G mobility model, which is set for 2020.
Borghei: We are excited to see what AT&T does with OTT, setting the platform for 5G delivery of video content. We view OTT as an opportunity for our broadcast towers to provide space for anyone that wants to provide fixed wireless services. Verizon should continue getting its arms around its content strategy concerning its acquisition of Aol and Yahoo.
What other events do you expect to affect the wireless infrastructure industry in 2017?
Borghei: It is going to be a transformational year from the megamerger standpoint. The AT&T/Time Warner deal will go through with the new administration. There will be attempts to acquire T-Mobile, which, if successful, would be huge for the industry. Not necessarily negative. We are not nervous about it. As Alex says, a marketplace with four carriers and only two spending money is not as good as a market with three healthy carriers spending money.
Overall, 2017 should be a gradual improvement in leasing over 2016, which saw stronger growth over the second half. Additionally, there are deadlines coming up for DISH to do something with its spectrum.
Gellman: The long term wireless infrastructure demand outlook is good. Even though organic growth has been muted, tower stocks held up because 5G is coming. You are going to need to amend the existing sites, roll out new frequencies and densify the network. All of that is good for towers.
What kind of impact do small cells have on your bottom line?
Gellman: In the area of densification, the carrier spend, which has been pretty muted in the last few years, is coming. We are hitting our projections coming out of the gate but they are pretty modest projections. Over time you will see it grow. So far, small cell buying has been geographically driven based on traffic and traffic projections. The carriers are looking for bulk answers: a single company to give them, for example, 300 small cells in Chicago. That does not lend itself to the sites that we have. As the carriers get more specific on the location of their hotspots and they get comfortable with billboards, they will call us if they have a traffic problem in a certain intersection.
Gellman: Shockingly, small cell site deployment is still driven by RF propagation analysis. There is going to be a shift by the carriers where they do their capital deployment based on traffic, more than RF. It is about the location of the high school. What do your sites look like when school lets out? That’s the peak. I guarantee you they need small cells all around those high schools. Where is the Instagram and Facebook traffic? That’s where the carriers are moving. That’s where our billboards come in. We have a pretty good pipeline, but it should increase by an order of magnitude in the next 12 to 18 months.
How will network virtualization affect Vertical Bridge?
Gellman: Where Digital Bridge and Vertical Bridge are focused is on the physical layer of the network. When people talk about network virtualization, that is really the software and the computerization of the network, but there still needs to be a physical layer to get to the cloud. You need antennas, towers, radios, fiber and data centers. That is what Vertical Bridge focuses on, the physical layer of the network. When AT&T talks about virtualization, I think it is terrific. The more efficient the carriers are, the healthier they are, the better.
Outside of your towers, you now have 40,000 assets that you market for wireless facilities, including rooftops and billboards. What need does this fill for your customers?
Borghei : The densification of the heterogeneous networks will drive the need for different types of assets: urban, suburban and rural. When you have indoor solutions handing off to small cells that hand off to macrocells, that’s where having different types of assets complementing our macrocell network is always going to be key for us. Densification is going to take place on all of these different morphologies. The various types of assets we have accumulated in buildings, rooftops, utility attachments and macrocells –– all are part of a turnkey real estate solution.
Borghei: I take it personally when people call us a tower company. We are no longer a tower company. We are a real estate solution provider. We have all these different types of assets to meet the demands of today’s advanced technology leading into 5G and beyond.
Gellman: We bought a lot of suburban towers with a lot of real estate. If C-RAN is to be located at specific sites, we look at marketing the land under our sites for a C-RAN hub.
Former Global Tower Partners executives Alex Gellman, Mike Belski and Bernard Borghei just couldn’t walk away from the cell tower industry. Less than a year after the sale of their towers to American Tower, the three have emerged as co-founders of Vertical Bridge Holdings, a privately-owned tower company headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, that will focus on owning, operating and managing cell towers and rooftop sites in the U.S. Market.
“When we sold GTP, we felt like we had unfinished business,” Gellman, company CEO, told AGL Link. “We saw the rapid emergence of new sites at levels that we have not seen in our industry for quite a while. We wanted to be a part of it.”
With the pipeline shifting from amendments to new leases, tower building is on the rise, according to Gellman. “The opportunities are to acquire as well as build. We are looking to do both,” he said. “We have good people, a good market and access to capital. Why wouldn’t we do this?”
Vertical Bridge recently completed two acquisitions expanding its sites portfolio in several states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Texas.
“We acquired premium locations: some roof tops and some towers, well-tenanted (Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T) locations in good markets,” Gellman said. “It is a good start for us and we have an active pipeline for additional transactions queued up. More to come.”
Vertical Bridge plans to function very similarly to GTP, but will probably grow faster than that company did in the early years because of its established relationships with carriers and increased access to capital.
“We are going to grow pretty quickly. We are going to focus on building towers more than GTP did, but that is more of a function of the current market. Prices are pretty high right now,” Gellman said.
GTP was in business for 10 years and had a financial relationship with the Macquarie Group that lasted seven years. Gellman said the new company has no exit strategy.
“We are looking to build Vertical Bridge for the long haul. We believe the market is strong and it is a good, stable business,” he said. “Where we see our short term opportunities for growth is predominantly macrocell driven.”
Building the Team
Vertical Bridge has also announced the formation of its executive team. Along with Gellman, Borghei is senior vice president of operations and Belski is senior vice president of leasing and development.
Formerly with Brown Brothers Harriman, Bob Paige joined Vertical Bridge as senior vice president of mergers and acquisitions. Daniel Marinberg, previously with the international law firm Greenberg Traurig, is vice president and general counsel. Johnny Crawford, who was with SBA Communications, is vice president of development. Suzanne Docobo, a tax consultant for GTP, joined the company as vice president and corporate controller.