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5G comes one step closer to Boise

photo of small cell transmitter in Boise

Verizon has already begun installing small cell transmitters in Boise, such as this one at Bannock and 8th. Photo courtesy of Verizon.

While nobody has announced 5G mobile networks in Idaho yet, Ada County has taken a step that could bring them closer, by making it easier for mobile network providers to install the transmitters they need.

The ordinance, which was passed by the Ada County Board of Commissioners earlier this month, updates zoning regulations for communication towers, antennas and base units, said Brent Danielson, associate planner with Ada County Development Services. It covers the installation of “small cells,” which can be used by 5G mobile technology as well as current 4G technology. In addition to being smaller than current cell phone towers, they are also closer together and intended for an urban environment, he said.

“Distributed antenna systems, or ‘DAS’ networks, and other ‘small cell’ systems use components that are smaller structures,” Danielson said. “The small antennas work in conjunction with existing macrocell antennas. The macrocell antennas provide coverage to an area, and the DAS and small cell system increases the capacity and quality of service within the coverage area. The small cell covers a smaller area than the macrocell antennas and puts out a smaller radio frequency. The small cell systems will typically be located on light poles, traffic signal poles, utility poles, buildings and water tanks, etc.”

The goal of the ordinance is to define and simplify the process for reviewing small cell wireless facilities and DAS applications, Danielson said. It also provides general standards for small wireless support structures and small wireless facilities and specifies an application process.

“The big towers (macrocell) are still considered conditional uses and will require a conditional use application, while the small wireless facilities are deemed an accessory use and will require a zoning certificate prior to installation.”

For now, the small cells would be used only to improve the existing 4G service, said Steve Van Dinter, public relations manager for Verizon, which sponsored the ordinance change.

“The small cells in Boise will bring an immediate benefit to our customers as they will be 4G LTE,” he said. “Once deployed, they provide an immediate benefit to our 4G LTE customers, just like adding lanes to a highway. But having a densified network (meaning enough small cells in the community) paves the way for us to bring 5G in the future.”

Verizon is sponsoring similar legislation in a number of other cities and has been investing in small cell infrastructure since 2013, Van Dinter said.

“We’re working with forward-thinking communities across the country to modernize and streamline their processes to allow us to bring the latest technology — small cells— to market,” he said. “Boise is just one of many cities where we are adding small cells and densifying our network.”

The company has also sponsored similar legislation for other Ada County government entities, such as the Ada County Highway District, so that regulations would be consistent across the county, Danielson said. It is not clear whether Verizon is sponsoring similar legislation in any other Idaho county.

While 5G has not yet been announced for Boise, by Verizon or anyone else, it may be coming soon. Verizon has opened a new store in southwest Boise, owned and operated by Victra. “5G will be available around 2019 after all stores go through a trial period with the faster speeds,” said Kelly Martin, a spokeswoman for the new store. “With the new store in Boise, locals will be able to test out 5G as soon as it’s available nationwide.”

5G is intended to be the next generation of mobile phone technology, offering faster speeds and less latency than the existing 4G service. While it is intended primarily for the urban environment, it may also become available over a different wavelength that would make it suitable for use in rural areas as well, though it would be slower.

Verizon has announced 5G in five cities so far: Sacramento, Los Angeles, Houston, Indianapolis and Panama City.

About Sharon Fisher

Sharon Fisher is an Idaho Business Review staff writer, covering financial institutions, technology, and business development. She holds a bachelor of science in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a masters in public administration and graduate certificates in geographic informational analysis and in community and regional planning from Boise State University. She likes explaining things and going to meetings. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_SLFisher.