The New Orleans City Council signed off Thursday on rules governing rapid-fire wireless networks that will soon be operating locally — technology that council members said could aid their use of data to drive government decisions and put New Orleans on a par with other forward-looking cities.
Regulations for “small cell networks” the council unanimously approved Thursday would serve as the foundation for the world’s most advanced cellular technology, 5G, to hit the local market in the coming years.
Members hope the move will not only make for a better browsing experience on personal phones and computers — with speeds at least eight times faster than currently exist on 4G networks, by one recent estimate — but also set the stage for the deployment of pedestrian sensors at traffic lights and other government software aimed at making New Orleans a “smart city.”
“We realized that our code, which was last updated ... decades ago, did not account for wireless technologies,” said Councilman Jason Williams, the chairman of the council’s Smart and Sustainable Cities Committee.
He added that such technologies are needed if the city hopes to “train a 21st century workforce to be ready for 21st century jobs.”
The council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration have been working on the new rules for months, anticipating an order from the Federal Communications Commission that was finalized in January about the fees jurisdictions could levy on companies seeking to install the devices.
The rules account for the uniqueness of the "small cell" technology, which, in a nutshell, has a shorter range than traditional cell towers and is made up of nodes that must be placed closer together and nearer to the ground in order to work.
But the small cells can increase bandwidth in dense urban areas that may not have room for more big towers. And because the cells are nearer to consumers, the cellular service that users receive tends to be swifter.
All of which makes possible fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, technology, which the telecommunications company Qualcomm last year estimated could boost browsing speeds from 56 megabits per second for the average 4G user to more than 490 megabits per second for the average 5G user.
The consultants who advise the council on utility, telecommunications and cable regulation said in a recent presentation that 5G technology can help New Orleans become a city of the future. They said it can be used to power accident-avoiding sensors in autonomous vehicles and traffic lights that detect and work to clear traffic jams and that turn themselves off when they aren't needed.
At least some form of 5G is already being offered to select customers in New Orleans and 11 other cities, according to AT&T. Verizon, AT&T and Sprint all have promised 5G devices by the first half of 2019, while T-Mobile says a nationwide network will launch in 2020.
Meanwhile, an analysis commissioned by CTIA, which represents the wireless communications industry, said the number of small cells deployed is predicted to jump from about 13,000 in 2017 to over 800,000 by 2026.
The council's rules set up the framework for that change.
The rules state that no company can mount a small cell node or other equipment on an electricity pole or any other city property without first signing a franchise agreement with the city and receiving a city permit.
Franchise agreements will generally last for 10 or 15 years but can be extended. Companies will pay a series of fees associated with their agreements, which were approved Thursday for New Cingular, commonly known as AT&T, plus Verizon and Southern Light.
AT&T will pay $25,000 per year for an initial 15-square-mile deployment area, which would increase by $500 per year for each additional square mile where small cells are deployed, not to exceed a total of $100,000 a year.
Southern Light of Alabama and Verizon would pay $300 per wireless facility per year that is installed on a city-owned asset.
The companies would also pay pole use fees and be subjected to other costs.
Not everyone was pleased by Thursday's action. A handful of critics claimed the small cell towers, which would be affixed to electricity poles near people's homes, could emit potentially harmful radiation.
That argument has been a common one in other cities where the building blocks for 5G have been set up.
“I’m just going to come back to the original question that we have been asking every time: What proof do you have that this is safe?” resident Raphaelle O’Neil said.
Williams cited studies released by the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization, the Federal Communications Commission and other agencies that he said give him comfort that the technology is safe.
"We must be discerning when new technologies come out," Williams said. "But that being said, we cannot let apprehension hinder progress. We owe it to ourselves to make sure that our communication systems are built to withstand that bandwidth."