GM Sadat, P.E., the chief engineering officer of Concordia Group, presented an exciting picture of the possibilities the FCC created for wireless communications carriers seeking to deploy new networks when the agency made it possible to license Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) radio-frequency spectrum for commercial use. Sadat spoke at the AGL Local Summit in Seattle on Jan. 30.
“We started seeing deployment happen 18 months ago,” Sadat said. “Several carriers that we’re working with are deploying CBRS, even though they just got approved yesterday. We have until June 25 of this year to roll out the auction, the final phase of the CBRS. From a consumer perspective, it is amazing to see that you can have 5G wireless communications without the 28-GHz frequency band. It’s fast forward quickly to get 5G, 150-megahertz access, and it’s much cheaper. It means more jobs, more opportunities, a lot more throughput and a lot more data for a lot less money.”
— GM Sadat, P.E., chief engineering officer of Concordia Group
Photo by Don Bishop
Given the additional spectrum coming available for 5G, Sadat said, it is difficult for an operator to return to a jurisdiction that may previously have issued that operator a permit for wireless facility construction only recently and tell them, “I need more space; I need to build more; I need to have more antennas and radios.” Sadat said he would prefer to have another tower in the middle of the residential neighborhood.
“But they never let us do that,” Sadat said, “especially for a 150-foot tower. It’s becoming more challenging, but at the same time, the good thing is that there is a change of consensus. When you’re walking into the offices of a city government or another jurisdiction and you say ‘5G’, that’s sexy. You walk in, and right away they understand it. They really understand it — they think, ‘Oh, you’re going to bring in better service, more internet and cheaper service?’ ”
Advocating for Consumers
Sadat said that T-Mobile is especially strong on advocating for the consumer. He said it helps with application approval that there is more public awareness. There are people who want to have faster, cheaper and better wireless service, Sadat said, likening it to what he called the good old days when wireless carriers could charge for service by the megabyte, let alone gigabyte.
Katie Miller, senior manager of spectrum policy at T-Mobile, moderated the session where Sadat spoke: “FutureCast 2020: What Tower Trends Will Shape the New Year.” Miller raised the subject of Section 6409(a) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, commonly referred to as Section 6409. The section mandates that a state or local government approve certain wireless broadband facilities siting requests for modifications and collocations of wireless transmission equipment on an existing tower or base station that do not result in a substantial change to the physical dimensions of a tower or base station.
“Section 6409 has improved the process — being able to utilize that opportunity with zoning and permitting to get these sites that are needed,” Miller said to Sadat. “It sounds like you’re getting the benefits from Section 6409.”
When Section 6409 Hurts
Sadat said Section 6409 is beneficial in some areas, “but it hurts us in others, especially when we need to go into an area with existing infrastructure but the satellite is not available or there is interference because of another site, especially with massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) communications. There’s a lot of interference. A tremendous amount of broadcast is happening, and things are getting closer and closer together.”
It is difficult to explain that to a local government official who issued a wireless facility permit only a few months ago or a year previously, Sadat said. Nevertheless, he said, Section 6409 helps with obtaining permits for what he called greenfields. A new network designed from scratch to enable new radio access network (RAN) technologies is sometimes referred to as a greenfield project.
With network densification, Sadat said, Section 6409 is not helping. Network densification adds more RAN access points, such as towers, small cells and other wireless facilities, to increase network capacity. “As you go into densification, Section 6409 actually hurts us more because local officials sometimes say the carrier already has an existing structure. The problem may be that the carrier cannot use it because it is either too close or the satellite is not available,” he said.
In the past, Concordia has encouraged wireless carriers to collaborate for an application to overcome this type of resistance. He said carriers sometimes find it tough to work with their competitors, but it has happened, especially in jurisdictions that have challenging restrictions.
“Chicago has suburbs that are just impossible to get into,” Sadat said. “But when you walk in shoulder-to-shoulder representing three or four carriers with the same request, the collaboration really helps. It makes a strong statement, explicitly: ‘We need that specific geography. We need that specific location.’|”
Massive MIMO means really massive antennas, Sadat said. He said the larger size of the antenna makes it extremely difficult to install. It may be so structurally demanding that it may be necessary to change nearly all of the antenna mounts on the tower. Modifications may be costly, and this will affect the tower owner.
Yet, massive MIMO brings wireless carriers benefits, Sadat said. “You’re talking about massive MIMO increasing the available bandwidth by 22 times,” he said. “Rather than having eight or 16 antennas, we’re now talking 28, and now they’re talking about 512. So imagine having 500 ears on one antenna.”
Radio interference between tower sites is pushing network operators to use small cells, Sadat said. “We like the towers more than small cells,” he said, “but it goes back to Section 6409, which helps and also doesn’t help, because you need more towers.”
Using in-building wireless systems with distributed antenna system (DAS) networks has become unavoidable, Sadat said, although it can be a challenge for the system owner to obtain a return on the investment.
Small cells that use utility poles to hold antennas require pole attachment agreements between the carriers and the utilities. Utilities were given the opportunity to jump on the wireless bandwagon in 1997, but Sadat said they thought the business was too small. He said that with small cells, it is impossible to avoid using pole attachments.
“I think the next killer idea is to somehow completely bypass the pole attachment issues that we’re running into,” Sadat said. “I haven’t found the recipe for that. The only way is to put new private poles in rights of way, but that is not easy.”
On behalf of the First Responder Network (FirstNet) Authority, AT&T is building the FirstNet nationwide broadband public safety wireless network. Sadat said Concordia is seeing more work from the FirstNet project for construction engineering.
If Sadat could have his wish, he said he would want FirstNet to be a separate project from AT&T, and that the rollout were not just collocation with AT&T’s existing infrastructure or antenna mounts. He also would prefer that the FirstNet Network were not rolled out to one carrier only. “I wish it were more regionalized,” he said. “Just having it all on the hands of one is probably part of the reason why it’s taking so long.”
RF Safety and Politics
Miller turned the discussion to RF safety and politics. “The FCC recently decided that the electromagnetic energy (EME) discussion is dead, with no further investigation needed,” she said. “In 2020, a new administration could potentially come in, and that could change the FCC, which in turn could change that ruling and affect tower sites. What are your thoughts on how politics could play in 2020?” Miller asked Sadat.
Whether a change in administration comes in 2020 or 2024, Sadat answered, may not make a difference. He said that the last time the matter received FCC attention was in the late 1990s when cell sites were using 12-pound antennas. He said the matter of revising EME regulation could be postponed until as late as 2030.
What may turn the tide is the use of 39-GHz and 60-GHz frequencies, along with massive MIMO antennas, Sadat said. “That’s when you’re getting into the ionizing radiation that everybody’s talking about,” he said. “That really is a concern. But I think you’re not looking at new regulation any time before the 2030s.”
Need for Research
The RF environment has changed since the 1990s, Sadat said. “We have Wi-Fi, we have all sorts of radio energy penetrating our bodies,” he said. “It was a different environment 20 years ago when they were doing EME studies. A lot more research has to be done, plus you have the long-term effects and you have the short-term or acute effects of EME. The concern is the chronic, not the acute. It is easy to prove something when you have acute exposure to ionizing radiation, such as radioactivity when someone enters a nuclear power plant and has 10 minutes of exposure to gamma radiation. We can see the result. But someone exposed to 60-GHz radiation over 20 years, where is the study for that?”