Slow Progress for Fast Speeds

Two years after partnering with Verizon, few Sacramento neighborhoods have 5G availability

Back Longreads Jun 4, 2019 By Russell Nichols

In December, Earl Lum spent the holiday season snooping around Sacramento’s eight city council districts, snapping pictures of city-owned street lights for evidence. The wireless analyst was on a mission to assess the status of Verizon’s 5G Home network, which launched in the capital in October 2018.

He came bearing questions: How many poles had the shoe-boxed sized 5G radios mounted on them? Were these fixed wireless sites only in wealthier neighborhoods? Did they target businesses? It took him three trips to map every pole. Each time, he scouted for two to three days from dawn to dusk. For an official launch of a network like this, Lum believes at least 2,000 sites with about 50 percent service coverage would be respectable. But what he found was some 200 small cells attached to street lights with broadband signals reaching less than 10 percent of Sacramento’s population.

“The network was extremely limited,” says Lum, founder of EJL Wireless Research in Half Moon Bay, who has analyzed wireless and mobile radio access markets for over 20 years. “There was clearly not enough sites to even do what I would call a real launch for a network.”

There are 40,000 city-owned poles in Sacramento with about 9,000 being suitable for wireless development, according to city officials. But Lum argues that those suitable poles only cover the main streets, and the distance of the signals from each site fails to fill the gaps. Another issue he points out is the millimeter wave technology, which is line of sight, meaning trees and rain can disrupt signals.

Two years after the city’s partnership with Verizon was announced, Lum’s findings – published in the report United States 5G Fixed Wireless Access Case Study, Verizon Wireless and the City of Sacramento, CA – paint a sobering picture. The city boasted of being one of the first four test cities for the telecom giant’s 5G network. Officials called the move a major step toward a future of lightning-fast speeds, smart meters and wearable technology, and, down the line, industrial automation and self-driving cars. They called it a “game-changer.” But if the game has any hope of changing, Lum says the city would need as many as 4,000 sites to provide full coverage, an undertaking that could take up to 10 years.

“Everyone did a lot of field trials prior to the launch,” Lum says. “[Verizon wasn’t] going into this whole thing blind. Part of this survey was to do a fact check on the reality.”

Trusting the Process

In 2017, the Sacramento City Council approved a $100 million partnership with Verizon. One of the major selling points was a reduced rate on 200 poles if Verizon agreed to make Sacramento one of the first 5G test cities. Last year, Maria MacGunigal, the city’s chief information officer, said it was a gamble to give up full-price lease payments for pole space in the deal. The gamble hasn’t exactly paid off yet.

Verizon’s fixed wireless service in Sacramento doesn’t meet the updated international standards for 5G, so the newly mounted radios already need to be replaced. City officials didn’t know the radios would need upgrades at the time of deployment, but found out during the process as technology standards were adopted. Verizon plans to swap the outdated radios with newer ones and upgrade customers’ 5G Home equipment for free, according to Verizon spokesperson Heidi Flato. This upgrade will happen “as equipment becomes available,” she said, but declined to give a specific timeline.

Nearly a year after the launch, nobody seems to know how or when 5G coverage will expand. Per the agreement, Verizon has “satisfied their initial 5G Home rollout,” according the city officials. As of now, no district has full coverage, but each one has representation, says Natasha Greer, who is on MacGunigal’s team, leading this project.

Related: The 5G Promise

The city’s agreement with the company is “giving Verizon a chance to test out this technology that’s never been used before and really see what modifications need to be done before it’s rolled out citywide,” Greer says.

Verizon hasn’t published a 5G coverage map. Instead, the company provides a website where potential customers can type in their home address to check for availability. Flato says Verizon hasn’t had any issues related to rolling out 5G in multiple cities at the same time, nor hurdles specific to Sacramento during the launcht.

“There have not been any unique challenges in Sacramento,” Flato said in an email. “Working with forward-thinking city leaders in our initial launch markets has helped make the process run smoothly.”

A Broader Network

The public-private partnership is bigger than 5G. It’s a cooperative agreement that includes support for STEM programs, improvements to public safety at key intersections and other initiatives.

In December, Verizon supported two Learn to Solder workshops, where middle school students learned to build video games. During the first NorCal Robo Rumble in Sacramento in January students competed against each other with hand-built robots. The one-day event was hosted by Maker HQ, a local nonprofit for makers, in partnership with the city and Verizon, Flato says. Verizon says it has started its deployment of traffic data services to better understand traffic flow and congestion.

One of the key promises of the partnership is Wi-Fi in the parks. In November, the city and Verizon decided to scrap the plan to install 15 Verizon digital kiosks throughout the city, which was supposed to, among other things, help bring free Wi-Fi to parks. The reason for the change isn’t clear. The city said there wasn’t a long-term strategy and later added that, within the agreement, it was considered a benefit for Verizon, but not essential. According to Flato, Verizon will be delivering Wi-Fi connectivity to 27 Sacramento parks starting this summer.

When asked about delays, officials claim the city is still on track. The agreement calls for each solution to be implemented on a rolling basis, within two years of fiber being laid at specific locations. Verizon has promised to deploy more than 180 miles of fiber optic cable in Sacramento. As of March, 67 percent of fiber had been installed, which officials say puts Sacramento “well within the terms of our agreement with regard to the deployment of our Smart City solutions.”

Calling Dibs

In theory, any wireless carrier could deploy its own 5G network in Sacramento; the contract with Verizon isn’t exclusive. But the poles are set up on a first-come, first-served basis, and multiple carriers can’t operate on one pole.

Sprint didn’t respond about any plans to roll out a 5G network in Sacramento. AT&T has not announced its mobile 5G timing for Sacramento, according to Ryan Oliver, media relations director for the west region of AT&T Global. For home service, the company offers AT&T Internet 1000, powered by AT&T Fiber to 11 million locations, including more than 175,000 sites in Sacramento. This service boasts speeds of 1,000 mbps, more than triple the typical speeds of 300 mbps for Verizon’s 5G Home (up to 940 mbps, depending on location).

Louis Stewart, Sacramento’s chief innovation officer, says AT&T had approached the city about 5G, but at the time officials were still working out the deal with Verizon.

“We had to push pause for a second to make sure the contract was fully executed and had begun implementation before opening the door to other providers,” Stewart says.

Officials wouldn’t say if the city was pursuing any other providers for 5G, but said Sacramento is now “open for business” for wireless developments with all carriers.

In 2016, before Verizon was in the picture, Sacramento made a deal with 5 Bars Communities, which was assigned in 2017 to XG Communities, an Irvine-based provider of wireless asset marketing and management for cities and municipalities. The agreement called for XG to create a database of city assets that could be potential sites for small cells and to negotiate deals with other parties, such as telecommunication service providers. In April 2018, XG filed a complaint, claiming the city violated this contract by allowing Verizon to use city assets for small cells without going through XG.

In October 2018, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of XG. But the city filed an appeal, which is under review. With the legal issue unresolved, XG CEO John Clarey says only that his company is still providing its services to Sacramento and has since developed hundreds of sites representing all four carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

“We look forward to affirmation of the judge’s order,” Clarey wrote in an email, “and continuing to bring next generation wireless to the city.”

Pole Position?

Lum says Sacramento has a long way to go. He thinks Verizon’s 5G Home rollouts in the other test cities are in similar positions – except for Los Angeles, which is worse in terms of area coverage. Lum took a similar trip there to analyze the deployment and found sites in only 2 out of 15 city council districts.

But until project planners figure out how to address the pole problem, connectivity will remain limited, Lum says. During his trips to the capital, he plugged in various residential addresses on the Verizon site to see how far the signal was able to reach. The results weren’t promising.

“It’s going to be difficult doing 5G at these frequency bands,” he says. “How far can the signal go with all the trees? Distances are much shorter than I would’ve imagined. That complicates the deployment.”

Certain neighborhoods have decorative “acorn” lights that aren’t suitable for small cells. But with such limited range, Lum wonders how the radios mounted on poles around the perimeter will deliver 5G service throughout the neighborhoods.

“Can you swap out an acorn light for a 35-foot LED pole?” Lum wonders. “If you can’t swap those out, you’ll never get citywide coverage. Or, if you do, will someone in the neighborhood be upset because you wrecked the scenery?”

This is an issue about coverage now, let alone years down the road when the city expects to have the game-changing innovations. “If you’re talking about autonomous cars,” Lum says, “you’re going to need every corner where you have street lights filled with radios beaming all over the place.”

Any agreement involving many tens of millions of dollars of new spending will be complex, says Gordon Feller, co-founder of Meeting of the Minds, a nonprofit focused on innovations in smart and sustainable cities. He says the signed agreement was always available and the city has been transparent, but the delay leaves many small businesses not sure if and how 5G will help them.

“The process of getting these small cell sites up and running has been frustrating only because the expectation was very high,” Feller says. “With every new thing, the expectation that it will go fast has to meet reality.”

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