Super-fast 5G is still miles away from South Florida

Ron Hurtibise
Contact ReporterSouth Florida Sun Sentinel

Wireless broadband replacing cable and satellite TV service. Movies downloadable in seconds. Cellular phone calls with no dropped calls or disruptions. Driverless transportation networks. Sports broadcasts that virtually put fans in front row seats. Live video collaborations between surgeons thousands of miles apart.

Those are some of the promised benefits of 5G — or 5th Generation — wireless internet service that consumers are being promised are right around the corner.

In South Florida, those benefits are still a few miles down the road.

Deployment of infrastructure necessary to bring 5G service to the South Florida metro region on a widespread basis is not advancing as quickly as in other metro areas, and it could be months or years before residents here experience benefits of what some are calling the next industrial revolution.

That doesn’t make South Florida unusual. Plenty of other metro areas in the U.S. are in the same boat. And carriers can work only so fast to build the small cell transmitters that will have to be erected on virtually every city block. Unlike cell towers, which are large structures that can serve large areas, small cells transmit signals across short distances from metal boxes mounted on poles or buildings.

Most industry and government officials contacted for this story say 5G infrastructure will likely be built first in the Miami area, then move gradually north. But with 34 cities in addition to dozens of unincorporated areas within Miami-Dade County, securing permits to build thousands of small cell towers will prove challenging, they said.

At a technology summit hosted by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in November, cell service providers expressed concern that local governments in the region aren’t prepared to review and approve permits for new small cell 5G transmitters fast enough to keep the region on pace with rival metros, said Spencer Pylant, the chamber’s vice president of public affairs.

“We’re very serious about Miami being number one” for business opportunities, Pylant said. “5G is a critical part of our arsenal. It is going to impact the future of work and help children engage in education in ways they never thought possible.”

Meanwhile, Miami is not on any carrier’s short-term 5G rollout list.

AT&T, one of the largest carriers building 5G capabilities across the nation, in December announced that small and limited 5G mobile service has gone live in parts of 12 cities: Atlanta; Charlotte; Dallas; Houston; San Antonio; Waco, Texas; Indianapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Raleigh, North Carolina; and one Florida city — Jacksonville. The service is available only through a puck-shaped hotspot. No 5G phones are available yet.

Verizon has announced that it will offer the service in 30 cities before the end of 2019, but it hasn’t revealed which cities. The company last year introduced a wireless home 5G service in limited areas of Sacramento, Calif.; Los Angeles; Houston; and Indianapolis. Some technology analysts have pointed out that those cities were sites of some of the earliest 5G tests. Sites of later tests included Miami — which has led to hopes Miami might be among the next cities for rollout of Verizon’s home service.

T-Mobile is building infrastructure in 30 cities but won’t offer 5G phones until later in the year. The company, which is seeking governmental approval an announced merger with Sprint, has said it will launch 5G mobile services this year in Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York.

Speaking of Sprint, South Florida is not among the nine metros where the company expects to offer 5G mobile service in the first half of the year.

As for 5G phones, they won’t be available until later this year. “And they won’t be widespread until 2021,” said Ken Schmidt, a cell tower lease consultant and author of the industry news blog Steel in the Air.

Last fall, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez authorized nine new staff positions to review 5G permitting applications, said Alice Bravo, director of the county’s Transportation and Public Works department. Hiring for those positions is underway, she said.

So far about 1,000 5G permits have been issued and 300 are pending, Bravo said, adding that she expects the pace to accelerate soon.

Officials with the city of Miami did not provide a number of 5G permits or consent to an interview for this story.

Broward County has received no permitting applications for 5G small cell transmitters in unincorporated areas, officials there said.

Fort Lauderdale has so far seen just a trickle of activity — 42 permits have been requested for 5G transmitters. Of those, 14 have been approved, according to the city’s department of sustainable development. Department director Anthony Fajardo said he has asked carriers “what is the expected pace [of applications], and they’re telling me, ‘This is all we have for now.’”

In West Palm Beach, carriers are upgrading existing equipment in preparation for adding 5G transmitters, said Robert Brown, that city’s building official. But as far he knows, no carrier has submitted a permit application to build a new 5G transmitter, he said.

Typically, carriers meet with city officials in advance of large-scale technology transitions to discuss workflows, such as before the transition from 3G to 4G a decade ago, but no such meeting has been requested yet, Brown said.

As stories anticipating proliferation of 5G transmitters began circulating over the past few years, some cities adopted defensive postures.

Some enacted ordinances regulating physical appearance of the transmitters out of concern for visual blight. Some saw the coming deployment as a money-making opportunity and adopted hefty permitting fees.

Health concerns also surfaced. In September 2017, more than 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries recommended a moratorium on 5G rollout until effects of human exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) could be tested.

U.S. carriers responded by lobbying states and the federal government to streamline the approval process and preempt cities and counties from creating separate rules.

The Florida Legislature obliged with statewide regulations in spring 2018, followed by the Federal Communications Commission’s creation in late 2018 of national rules capping application fees at $100 per small cell and giving local governments just 60 to 90 days to take action. Under the rules, which are being challenged in court by more than 80 cities and counties, local governments may review only whether a small cell transmitter poses a safety hazard. Aesthetic considerations are not allowed.

While the new FCC rules were intended to hasten deployment of 5G in South Florida and elsewhere, officers of Verizon and infrastructure provider Crown Castle told shareholders late last year that it wouldn’t have much effect on their pace of deployment.

“We’re going as fast as we can,” said Matthew Ellis, Verizon Communications executive vice president and chief financial officer.

The good news for South Florida’s 5G enthusiasts, according to Steel in the Air’s Schmidt, is that once small cell construction gets rolling here, deployment should be rapid.

“Florida is one long urban sprawl,” he said. “But there are no hilltops or elevation changes, so it’s one of the easiest areas to deploy.”

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