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Wireless execs talk 5G in Maryland

Wireless companies need the ability to create infrastructure for the next generation of mobile internet, 5G, wireless officials told Baltimore business leaders Monday.

To catch up to the changing use of cellphones and other mobile devices, carriers and other infrastructure providers have been using small-cell technology to improve their networks. This technology builds off the traditionally used cellphone tower.

“Towers are great to provide your voice service. They are not as great at providing the data” Richard Rothrock, government relations manager for wireless infrastructure firm Crown Castle, said.

Rothrock was one of three wireless industry government affairs professionals to address the Greater Baltimore Committee’s 5G and The Future of Wireless Connectivity, Innovation and Investment breakfast briefing.

Arturo Chang of the Wireless Infrastructure Association and LaTara Harris of AT&T also addressed the briefing.

Cellphone towers have gone up as mobile phone usage has spread across the country. But these towers were not designed to carry data for modern wireless uses.

The average person has 1.2 wireless devices, Rothrock said, including phones, tablets and wearables.

But with the proliferation of these devices, network capacity has dwindled. That means that even in places where someone has a strong wireless signal, their device may still access the internet more slowly because so many devices are connected.

This can be especially true at large events in venues like sports arenas or convention centers.

Now carriers are building wireless capacity by utilizing small wireless facilities that go on top of street lights and utility poles.

These facilities, in some cases not even noticeable unless someone is looking for them, have helped increase capacity on the current generation of mobile data, 4G.

“Small cells are really helping us keep up with the times,” Harris said.

The small-cell facilities are also laying the groundwork for the next generation of mobile internet, 5G. That technology, based on millimeter waves, is expected to roll out at some point within the next five years.

5G will take advantage of the small-cell facilities. But it will also require entirely new devices that can access the millimeter wave network.

Legislative battle

The wireless infrastructure companies and municipalities have been battling over the small-cell infrastructure in the state legislature over the past couple of years.

Separate pieces of legislation, one backed by the Wireless Infrastructure Association and the other backed by the Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League, were both referred for study after the 2019 legislative session ends by the House Economic Matters Committee Friday.

The wireless companies want to ensure that they can gain access to public rights of way at what they consider a reasonable fee so they can continue to build out their small-cell networks. That includes access to the street lights and utility poles.

“For us this is not about whether we bring 5G or small cells to Maryland, but about how,” Natasha Mehu, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties, told the committee last month. “Maryland counties really want what is best for our residents, including the latest technology and access to this. … We just believe that we should have a say in the process.”

The municipalities are worried about state legislation giving companies the right to put the small cells into place without approval of local zoning authorities.

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