HARRISBURG — At Front and Chestnut streets downtown, a strange-looking dark-green streetlight with a big cylinder on top has gone up.
Dave Manns spotted it Wednesday and had no idea what it was.
“At first, I thought it might have something to do with the sewer system,” he said, having noticed crews in the area, where that kind of work is often done. Other residents thought it might be a gunshot detector.
It turns out, the pole and cylinder make a 5G cell tower. And it’s among the first dozen or so to spring up in Harrisburg. Eventually, there will be about 100 of them, according to the city engineer, and that’s just for one carrier: Verizon. If other companies transition to new technology to improve data speed, there could be many more in the future.
“It’s an unusual piece of equipment,” Manns said. Having previously worked in telecommunications, he was amazed at how compact it is and how it blends in with the background, not becoming an eyesore. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Where he lives in downtown Harrisburg, he does not have 5G service yet, but he said he’s happy to see it coming to the city. For full coverage, it will require a network of them in all parts of the city.
City Engineer Wayne Martin said AT&T erected about 20 new cell towers a few years ago, but they were 4G technology and smaller, so less noticeable. The new 5G towers from Verizon come in several different styles (Dark green or gray with cobra-style lights or lights that look like teardrops.) All are dual-purpose, also acting as streetlights, providing additional illumination.
In addition to getting free replacement or new streetlights, the city also receives lease payments from the cell phone companies annually as well as installation fees.
5G is the new wave in cellular technology and is much faster than the 4G LTE service, allowing for high-speed streaming video and services that may be needed in the years go come.
Verizon officials said they cannot discuss 5G network build plans outside of what has already been announced and couldn’t talk about further development in the city.
“I can tell you we have committed to significant investment in expanding our coverage this year across the country,” Verizon spokesman Chris Serico said. “That said, Verizon uses a balanced approach to engineering the best possible network given each local community’s needs. We work over a significant period of time with each city and follow all applicable laws, including local requirements, to develop the small cell pole designs you see today.”
While it was not immediately known exactly how many towers will be erected, Verizon’s coverage map, which updates in real time, shows that 5G Nationwide is available in Harrisburg and much of the surrounding area.
The 5G Ultra Wideband service is available in parts of major cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington D.C. In Philly, the 5G towers are being affixed to traffic signals, Martin said, but that’s not allowed in Harrisburg, since PennDOT has restrictions on traffic signals for third-class cities.
Serico explained that 5G Nationwide uses a low-band spectrum technology that lets 5G service run simultaneously with 4G LTE on multiple spectrum bands. Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network uses the high-band, ultra-wide millimeter-wave spectrum to deliver the best 5G available today, he said.
AT&T’s coverage map is similar.
In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission unveiled new rules for the timeline and budget of 5G installation. According to the New York Times, the new rules were supported by telecom companies to streamline the process, but opposed by city officials who wanted more local control and to enforce local regulations.
According to reports, the FCC set a clock of 60 to 90 days for officials to approve or reject installation requests, and they limit how much city officials can charge to deploy the small towers.
Many local officials have expressed concerns about the loss of revenue and of being forced to give up a measure of control under this plan, the Wall Street Journal reported. Telecommunication companies, on the other hand, have called local rules burdensome while national security officials have cited concerns that the U.S. could be falling behind in the race to develop 5G, reports indicate.
Nearby, Swatara Township manager Jim Fosselman said he’s not aware of the township being approached yet for 5G coverage. The possibility has been discussed by township officials, but no actions have been taken.
He said 5G just requires a pole, and not a giant tower, and there are plenty already around on the township streets, so at this point, he doesn’t see a cause for concern.
The pole at Chestnut and Front streets in Harrisburg blends in with other poles and the park and river in the background. The city engineer said Verizon honors their requests to have certain poles painted green for this exact reason.
Rebecca Stimeling works for the Dauphin County Office of Mental Health, Autism and Developmental Programs across the street from the new pole and said it’s hardly noticeable.
But what she has noticed is faster cell service in recent days. Her phone this week showed it was using 5G service, and she said web pages opened faster and videos connected much quicker.
Verizon officials say small towers like the one at Chestnut and Front streets are an important part of ensuring reliable connectivity for subscribers — especially now when many people are working or learning from home.
“These small antennas strengthen our network in the areas where we deploy them — resulting in faster speeds, greater capacity and more reliable connections,” Serico said.
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