An unwelcome lawn ornament, courtesy of Verizon.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
When most people look out their windows in the morning, they likely aren’t expecting to be surprised by a refrigerator-sized box that’s feeding 4G/5G antennas, but that’s the exact experience some Houston residents have been having. Verizon has been installing the boxes as part of its 5G network rollout since at least 2019, and from the reporting done by the Houston Chronicle, it seems as if it’s been anything but smooth.
The boxes are known as “street furniture,” and they supply power and data to $G and 5G antennas that are being placed on utility poles and street lights. The ones gracing people’s front window views are being set up to build out Verizon’s misguided 5G wireless home internet and video streaming service.
Streamlined 5G buildout puts ‘street furniture’ in Houston’s front yards https://t.co/je47v706lk
— Houston Chronicle (@HoustonChron)
January 22, 2021
The first speed bump is that Verizon is under no obligation to get permission from homeowners before installing the boxes. In fact, it’s not even required to notify them that it’s going to happen. This is because, technically, the boxes (and the utility poles that go along with them) are installed on the right-of-way, which is land owned by the county.
The permits to place the equipment are dirt cheap to telecoms, only costing $300. They used to be $2,700 before a law was passed by the state of Texas in 2017. But it’s not just Houston that’s having to deal with the surprise boxes, and it’s not just Verizon putting them down. This drama has been playing out for years as telecoms are trying to expand their networks and prepare for the 5G transition.
While it may be startling, there are other complaints homeowners have. A common one is that the cellular equipment brings their property values down, which can lead to some extreme emotional reactions. And then, perhaps worst of all, there’s the mistakes that can come with installing new equipment: the Chronicle’s article tells of contractors digging into pipes and bursting them, flooding a street not with 5G signal, but with water.
While the strife is currently limited to certain areas, it’s perhaps a sign of things to come. As 5G continues its rollout, we can probably expect to see many more stories like this, where the desires of homeowners push up against the desires of telecoms and the community at large. If discussions aren’t starting about how to deal with it now, the surprises are going to keep showing up — if not on our doorsteps, then at least somewhere in the vicinity.
Adapted from a Houston Chronicle article from Jan 22, 2020:
Dirk Wijnands and Adeline Pang hadn’t paid much attention to the coming 5G wireless data revolution until its building blocks were installed without warning on the couple’s Montrose-area lawn.
In September 2019, work began on the street near their home on Elmen near Westheimer as contractors dug trenches to install fiber optic cable. Shortly afterward, a box resembling an oversized dorm room refrigerator appeared on their lawn, next to a wooden utility pole that had been placed earlier.
“Three weeks after the work began, they hung a little tag on our doorknob that said something like, ‘Oh we are doing some work on your lawn,’” Wijnands said. “They’d work on it for two or three days in a row, then I wouldn’t see them for five days, and then they’d be back.”
In the jargon of telecommunications, the box is known as “ground furniture.” The beige metal cabinets, with an electrical meter affixed, supply power and a high-speed fiber connection to a transmitter on Verizon’s wireless data network. They are popping up on lawns all over Houston, and in other cities around the United States, often without notice to homeowners.
It is part of the rush to build out the next-generation wireless network called 5G — even if it means ticking off residents. Norman Ewart, a retired lawyer who lives in the Rice Memorial area, said one of the boxes was placed outside his front gate. He complained to Verizon- but the box remains in place.
“It hasn’t been turned on yet, it’s just sitting there. I want it gone. It’s ugly, and it devalues my property.”
5G is touted as another disruptive technology, and, as Houston residents like Wijnands, Pang and Ewart have found, it’s not coming without disruptions. Telecommunications companies, device manufacturers, lawmakers and industry associations have promised much faster wireless data speeds, less latency or lag and transformation of the 21st century economy on scale of 4G wireless, which enabled mobile apps that created new services from ride-hailing to video streaming.
To fulfill 5G’s promise, federal and state governments penned orders and passed laws to allow the building of telecommunications infrastructure such as towers, the transmitters atop them and the fiber optic cables that feed them data. Unenlightened Cities lazily proclaim that their "hands are tied"— resulting in puzzled and unhappy landowners — which is the correct response because local governments still maintain local control over the placement, construction and modification of Wireless Telecommunications Facilities (WTFs) of any size and any "G".
The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling. The CTIA, the trade group for the wireless telecommunications industry, estimates the 5G buildout in the United States alone will cost $275 billion; some estimates put the cost as high $300 billion. That doesn’t include the spending to acquire spectrum – the radio frequencies over which wireless services travel. Telecom companies recently bid almost $81 billion for a chunk of spectrum known as C-Band (around 3500 MHz) in auctions run by the Federal Communications Commission.
But these are just estimates folks, just part of the wireless industry propaganda attempting to convince the public that constructing a 24/7 surveillance and crowd control grid in front of homes is inevitable. Fortunately, this is not inevitable.
Speed vs. distance
To understand why the 5G buildout is complicated and expensive — and possibly coming to lawn near you — it’s important to know that 5G is not just one technology. Rather, it’s an amalgam of many different ones, including using many of the same frequencies (700-2100 MHz) and modulation schemes (OFDM/OFDMA). Modulation is the way data is "imprinted" on RF microwaves so it can be transported from the source antenna to the target antenna on "carrier waves". The term modem is a mushing together of two words: modulate and demodulate.
Wireless networks use radio waves, collectively known as the radio spectrum, for transmission and reception. The radio waves operate at different frequencies. Higher frequencies can carry more data faster but don’t travel as far. Lower frequencies have greater range but can’t transmit as much information.
The C-Band spectrum auctioned by the FCC falls in the middle or mid-band (~3500 MHz), which is considered the “sweet spot” for 5G as it delivers slightly higher speeds than low-band frequencies (600-700 MHz), but its signals can travel further than high-band frequencies. (20,000-40,000 MHz).
As wireless companies build out densified 4G/5G networks, they are using low, middle and high bands of frequencies to optimize speed and range One strategy for rolling out densified 4G/5G in the United States involves changes to cellular towers in the public rights-of-way, on-the-ground equipment that provides power and internet connectivity, and the data and network centers used to manage wireless communications.
While low- and mid-band 5G transmitters are often installed on the same kind of towers as the predecessor technology4G LTE, high-band frequency transmitters are being installed lower to the ground and closer to homes, which is unnecessary.
High-band frequency transmission over a large area benefits from many so-called "small" Wireless Telecommunications Facilities (sWTFs), an unnecessary and heinous strategy known as densification that results in well-documented public safety, privacy and property value harms. It has been proven that High-band frequency transmission millimeter waves (73,000 MHz) can travel more than six miles..
Loss of control
Houston was the first city where Verizon sold a version of its 5G service aimed at home users, designed to compete with cable and fiber-optic residential broadband internet access. The service was launched in 2018, when Verizon began installing the “ground furniture” cabinets and putting small-cell transmitters atop utility poles.
Those transmitters deliver Verizon’s high-band frequencies (28,000 and 39,000 MHz) 5G service, which it markets as Ultrawideband. The service, first offered to areas in or near downtown, has been extended to other neighborhoods near downtown, Midtown and out to the Energy Corridor — almost to Beltway 8.
Other cities chose not to give up as much local control as Houston. These cities have greater latitude in controlling where telecommunications equipment is placed in their jurisdictions. Changes made by the Texas Legislature, designed to streamline the permitting process, has limited certain things cities can do.
A 2017 state law allows telecommunications companies to install the 4G/5G equipment without seeking approval of homeowners or notifying them. That law cut the fees the city could charge for installing a wireless node to $300 from $2,700.
Houston City Councilman David Robinson, chair of the city’s Transportation, Technology & Infrastructure Committee that oversees telecommunications projects, put it bluntly.
“It’s another instance of Houston getting the shaft as a municipality,” Robinson said
Waiting for answers
Robinson, who just happens to live near Wijnands’ and Pang’s home, said his hates that Verizon is not alerting residents before the boxes are placed. The permits don’t require individuals to be notified, Verizon spokesperson Kate Jay said, "So we don’t."
“We are required to work with design districts and historical commissions, but not with individual homeowners,” Jay said via email. “We take all complaints very seriously. Each case is assessed on an individual basis, with many factors going into that assessment. In limited instances, we have determined that there is sufficient reason to move it, and have done so.”
Verizon declined to make executives available for interviews. In a statement, the company said, “We comply fully with all zoning and permitting requirements, and potential antenna locations must meet all local, state and federal regulations. These are placed in the right of way and are properly permitted.”
But do they comply with this part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act?
47 U.S. Code § 324 – Use of minimum power
"In all circumstances. . . all radio stations . . . shall use the minimum amount of power necessary to carry out the communication desired."
Elizabeth Kantner, who lives in the Rice Memorial area near Washington Ave., said crews affixed one of the boxes last September in front her home, but not on the ground. Instead, it was mounted on a utility pole, about three feet off the ground. Crews dug up sod underneath it, and then left. An earlier dig broke water mains in the area, she said.
“When they started digging to put in cables, there were two water main breaks that flooded our street,” Kantner said.
After Kantner met with the head of the construction crew, the box was removed and the sod replaced. Looking at her front yard, it’s hard to tell anything was ever there.
But she said the matter is not resolved. Kantner said the contractor told her the box could reappear at any time and would check to see whether it would return or to move to another property.
So far, she said, there’s still no word.