Pole position: Cell carriers fight for space on streetlamps
Key to lucrative market and upcoming 5G service
Photo: Buck EnnisPRIME LOCATION: Companies want to attach more antennas to lamp posts.
Few elements of New York architecture are less distinguished than its streetlamps. But unbeknownst to many who walk beneath them, those humble, city-owned stanchions offer real estate that rivals private parking spots in value.
A handful of telecom companies that specialize in hardware deployment and have franchise deals with the city covet the poles and wait all year to bid for them. At the moment, some of those companies and their cellphone-carrier partners are particularly impatient.
The telecom players have gone back and forth with the de Blasio administration for months about when they will next get a chance to attach small cellular radio antennas to light poles citywide. Desperate for steady and predictable access to the poles, they have grown frustrated and even alarmed by what they perceive as the city's lack of urgency.
The reason: Unlimited data plans and the rise of video streaming have put intense pressure on carriers to increase wireless capacity. Putting the suitcase-size cell nodes on streetlamps—and close to customers—can allow more efficient use of spectrum than cell towers or rooftop antennas. Better service equals more customers.
Looking ahead in the competition for this lucrative market, those cell nodes can hold spots on the poles where high-speed antennas will go a few years from now. The resulting 5G network is expected to play a critical role in supporting cellular traffic for connected infrastructure, often called the Internet of Things, including self-driving vehicles.
Franchisees who work with carriers to find the best-located poles for their networks say New York has long been ahead of other cities in utilizing its infrastructure. The city inventoried some 250,000 light poles early on and made many of them accessible to operators. Only about 4,000 poles thus far have been reserved through bidding, so a huge opportunity remains.
The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications says it has every intention of giving timely pole access to the five franchisees, which attach the nodes and connect them to fiber-optic cable beneath the street. Bidding or "reservation" periods are decided at the city's discretion and not on a regular schedule, but telecom companies say there typically have been several each year for the past decade. Since July 2016, though, not one full reservation phase has been held. After a limited reservation period in April, DoITT told the franchisees that would be all for this year.
"Some carriers were up in arms," said Greg Weiner, a partner at Vertix Consulting of Oakton, Va., which advises carriers and telecom franchisees on small cell deployments in New York. "This is the only means to secure assets. You have no other option if they don't open the reservation period."
The agency changed its mind in late June, saying a new phase would open within a few months, and the industry breathed a sigh of relief. Yet some franchisees remain uneasy. As one pointed out, they still don't know exactly when the new phase will begin.
"In the past the city has been very accommodating," Weiner said. "We're anxious to see if that level of accommodation continues."
City officials insist that there has been no change in their commitment to working with the industry. They suspect some franchisees and carriers do not understand that the city weighs other demands for the poles, such as for first-responder and other public-safety uses.
DoITT also has been planning to issue a request for proposals for a new group of mobile telecom franchisees and could have one out by the end of the year. There is speculation in the industry that delays in putting together the RFP led to the postponement of reservation periods. A DoITT spokeswoman said the RFP remains in development and has no release date yet.
Insiders expect the agency to raise prices on the locations, which are generally limited to intersections. (The city says it discourages side-street deployment to minimize the impact on homes and workplaces.) Monthly charges for light-pole use go as high as $400. If past ventures are any guide, the city also might look to encourage innovation with the sitings, as it did when it converted pay phones to Wi-Fi kiosks through an RFP several years ago.
"New York has been hard at work developing the infrastructure to become the most connected, innovative city in the world," a DoITT spokeswoman said in a statement. "That includes transforming assets on our streets—be they pay phones, light poles or more—to meet the needs of New Yorkers and visitors in the 21st century."