EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can ask Ashland Source’s newsroom to investigate a question.
This story has been updated to correct the owner of the utility pole at 1250 E. Main St.
ASHLAND — A small cell node recently installed on a utility pole prompted an Ashland resident to ask us a question via our Open Source platform.
“Ashland’s first 5G tower for wireless activity appears to have been installed on top of a utility pole near Barefoot Floors (located at 1250 E. Main St.). Is this a new small cell tower for Verizon or AT&T? Any other details?”
The reader is partially correct, according to city officials and the small cell facility’s owner, Crown Castle.
The wireless communication infrastructure has, indeed, been installed on top of a Frontier Communications pole at 1250 E. Main St. Standing at 35-40 feet, it is considered a small cell facility owned by Crown Castle and leased by Verizon, according to Ashland City Engineer Shane Kremser.
But it’s not a 5G tower, per se.
It does, however, allow the “5G” icon to appear on supported Verizon devices.
Verizon’s Nationwide 5G became a thing in October 2020. The technology is based on what’s called dynamic spectrum sharing, which reuses parts of 4G channels for 5G.
When it comes to ultra, futuristic speeds that comes with true 5G technology, that takes some technical knowledge — and an understanding of why wireless communications companies are spending billions of dollars on their effort to beef up 5G.
First of all, the key difference between 4G and 5G is speed. 5G is much faster than its predecessor as it offers lower latency (the amount of time it takes for a data packet to go from one place to another) and better bandwidth capabilities.
5G has been forecasted to usher in the world’s fourth industrial revolution. The speed has been reported to be able to support artificial intelligence, quantum computing and smart city infrastructure, promising bigger profits for businesses.
The infrastructure that supports wireless communication gets upgraded roughly every 10 years and 5G is now becoming more prevalent in cities around the world.
However, recent purchases of what’s known as C-band will speed up that transition in larger metropolitan areas — for now, at least. This is where things start getting more technical.
To sum it up, C-band is a designation by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers for a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in the microwave range of frequencies ranging from 4 to 8 gigahertz, used by satellite communications transmissions, some Wi-Fi devices, some cordless phones and some other systems.
For 5G, the sweet spot is 3.7 to 3.98 GHz.
Satellite communications technology has advanced, leaving wireless communication companies like Verizon and AT&T able to purchase — by auction — the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz frequency range and employ it to 5G.
That specific spectrum, like others, is a finite resource, making it valuable to companies like Verizon who can repurpose it for their 5G needs.
That’s why Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile spent a combined $78.2 billion in a Federal Communications Commission auction that ended in February for C-band spectrum, shattering projections by Wall Street analysts and laying the groundwork to provide ultra-fast 5G to its customers as soon as January.
Verizon's Ultra Wideband 5G is already available in three Ohio metropolitan areas: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, according to Verizon’s website.
But that particular 5G only has a range of 200 meters and will need to be rolled out in larger cities block by block to really make an area reach those 5G speeds.
Areas in the rest of the country will start getting C-band 5G (the kind companies spent billions on in February) in 2022 with a deadline of receiving the upgrade by the end of 2023, according to the FCC.
That flavor of 5G will have a range of 1 to 1.2 miles, said Tom Furman, a Verizon employee based in Ashland working as a client partner in mobile solutions.
Ashland is part of an area the FCC calls a Partial Economic Area that isn’t scheduled to receive really fast 5G wireless communication upgrades until the end of 2023.
Kremser, the city’s engineer, said Crown Castle has submitted five applications over the last couple years for small cell facilities like the one next to Barefoot Floors. The company, however, has only built one so far.
Melissa Hand, a spokeswoman for Crown Castle, said the company has plans to build a few more. She declined to offer additional details, such as where and when they would be installed.
“We typically don’t share the location of our nodes until we’re a little further in the construction process,” Hand said.
Crown Castle, by the way, inked a deal with Verizon in April. The agreement says Verizon will lease 15,000 new small cells (like the one here in Ashland) from Crown Castle over the next four years. Once those are installed, the leases will have a term of 10 years.
When it comes to local control of these small cell facilities, Kremser said there isn’t much.
“State law requires us to allow them in the public right-of-way. The actual poles are regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Ohio,” he said.
Cities can, however, create design standards — which is something Ashland has done for small cell facilities. Kremser said Ashland borrowed design standards from Wooster.
The city’s 16-page document include guidance on how antennas, utility lines and other components are installed.