The next generation of wireless service holds a lot of potential, such as helping realize a future in which remote surgery and self-driving cars are not just possible but routine. But depending on who you ask, New York City is either behind on adopting the emerging technology, or poised to become the first 5G city. What few disagree about, however, is that 5G has transformative power.
New York City Chief Technology Officer John Paul Farmer and city Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications General Counsel Michael Pastor spoke with City & State about where the city stands on 5G deployment, criticisms of their progress on 5G and bridging the digital divide. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Where is New York City now in the process of deploying 5G networks and the infrastructure – like small cell nodes – necessary to facilitate them?
Michael Pastor: New York really has been a pioneer in leveraging our streetscape in furtherance of wireless connectivity. We have a mobile telecom franchise which goes back 15 years now. Under that franchise, telecommunications companies can put wireless installations on our street poles and utility poles in furtherance of supporting our network. We really are far ahead partnering with these carriers to get these small cells on our streets so that we can proliferate a wireless network around the city. At the same time, when we talk about 4G, and definitely when we talk about 5G, we don’t just want it to get done, we want it to get done right. And what that means is creating a system that ensures coverage in all five boroughs, not just in particular commercial corridors or in certain places. Looking back at the past couple years, we’ve sort of focused the carriers for their installations and reservations in the outer boroughs and in Upper Manhattan, and we’re very proud of that. And that’s something we’re going to continue to do as we go through 5G. So, to answer your question, that history really sets us out well for 5G to come. We have this program in place, we’ve been doing it for a long time and we know what we’re doing. We’re going to be entering into new franchise agreements with various companies to install equipment. Those agreements should be in place by the start of the new year, and when they’re in place, they’ll set up somewhat of a baseline for 5G installation in the years that follow.
John Paul Farmer: At the end of the day, the vision that (Mayor Bill de Blasio) has laid and all of the work that this administration does is to ensure that New York City is the fairest big city in America. We believe very strongly that technology can and should be a part of that plan. At the same time, we recognize that technology is almost never the single answer, but it’s almost always part of the answer. We’re looking to inject technology into not just improving the work of government itself, but improving the lives of New Yorkers and the services they receive and the experiences that they have. To do that effectively, we have to keep equity at the core of what we do. Right now, the digital divide is something that my office is spending a lot of time working on and addressing. Our Truth in Broadband work has shone a light on the need for New York City to address this. At the end of the day, disconnectedness is not a single thing, it’s really a bunch of underlying experiences. Some people lack access, others lack affordability and others lack inclusion. So when we come now to the question of 5G and telecommunications more broadly, we want to make sure that we are using, as Michael said, the experiences of the last decade and a half understanding what’s worked well in the past and really being intentional about this moment being an opportunity to address the digital divide, to use new technologies as they arise for New Yorkers, but keeping in mind that we mean all New Yorkers when we say that.
Do these goals – advancing technology on one end of the spectrum, while attempting to get others up to speed to bridge the digital divide – ever conflict with each other?
JPF: We are being very intentional about using this moment as an opportunity to improve for all New Yorkers. That means we can lift everybody up together, but we’re not going to leave anybody behind. That’s a choice that New York City has made and feels very strongly about. As we engage with stakeholders – which we’ve been doing and will continue to do – we’re ensuring that they understand the goals here are not simply to bring a flashy new technology to a small subset of the city, but it is to bring technologies that serve the needs of New Yorkers to everybody. The definition of what is acceptable is likely to change in the future. 5G, next-generation telecommunications, right now is rare, it’s sporadic, it’s not something that’s accessible for most. That’s not, right now, what we’re defining as the bar that we’re trying to reach. But at the same time, we recognize that we need to think about that these improvements are going to come, these changes are going to happen and we need to think about strategy by which the entire city has access these technologies.
To what extent is the rollout of 5G dependent on collaboration between city agencies? I know the city Department of Transportation has a role to play.
MP: There is extensive cooperation and consultation among all the agencies that touch on this. We at DoITT, and John Paul from the CTO’s perspective, are somewhat in the front there, in terms of the franchises and thinking about technology. But we have a great relationship with (our) brother and sister agencies. From a historical perspective, the mobile telecom franchise could not be what it is without the work of the Department of Transportation and other city agencies that help to make that happen. I think that historic teamwork, it’s just carrying forward as we speak. One of the things we’ve been doing as we prepare and think about 5G is having extensive engagement with telecommunications companies themselves. That engagement has been done with DoITT, with the CTO and with others.
What kinds of hurdles will you encounter in the 5G deployment process? One issue that has been brought up before is that the current box-like structures currently used to store cellular equipment on top of poles might not be compatible with 5G equipment.
MP: The one you mentioned is a big one, and it’s important to us as stewards of the streetscape, and of the city in general. A lot of the installations that are out there in other cities are big and ugly and just wouldn’t really be suitable from the perspective of a city that cares about what our city looks like. Some installations are as big as a refrigerator. So I think that is one, but we are doing work to overcome that hurdle in terms of looking at new designs that are compatible with 5G. I think we’re confident that, ultimately, the technology is such that we can overcome that. The other thing I would say is that New York City is big. When we talk about (5G) being right for New York City, it’s a big thing to get that done. To give you one example, there’s reporting about 5G in places like Chicago and Las Vegas. Chicago is obviously a big city as well, but the 5G there is tiny in terms of the coverage, in terms of how many people can use it. And it’s expensive in terms of the cost of the phones. I don’t think there’s any hurdle that’s not overcomeable.
JPF: The well-known quote: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed” – that’s the story of 5G today. It’s in some small spots, it’s sporadic, it’s not really accessible or affordable. We want to make sure that’s not the experience of the future of 5G. What that means is it’s going to take a number of different stakeholders coming together, certainly various agencies of New York City government, but also the private sector, in working on ways to deal with some of these challenges because a lot of New Yorkers don’t want to have a refrigerator box hanging from a street pole outside of their home. To come up with solutions that meet all of the needs and the criteria that New Yorkers have for their city, that might require some material science work, some miniaturization, maybe just some innovation at the end of the day. So we’re very open to and we continue our conversations along these lines, with all of our stakeholders out there and anyone who would like to have them.
There have been criticisms that the process of deploying 5G has been too slow in New York City. How do you respond to that?
MP: As I mentioned, we have a robust mobile telecom program in place, up and running, functioning great. We have a request for proposals out there for new franchisees, and we are processing that rigorously and at a good pace. We hope to be done with that all by the end of the year, on schedule with what we had planned. I don’t know if I could say much more than to say that it’s just not substantiated that were slow and/or behind. In fact, the opposite is probably true.
JPF: I’ll just add that while we need to recognize the promise of new technologies, there’s also a lot of hype out there. As we move forward, we’re really focused on equity, affordability and appropriateness of the technology. The reality today is that sporadic service in limited parts of the city with phones that are unaffordable to almost everybody is not necessarily transformational. That’s not really going to change life for most New Yorkers in a positive way. We’re really thinking about how do we do this in a way that moves briskly while taking into account the various needs of New Yorkers that we’re here to serve.
Is there a timeline in mind for when 5G will be broadly in use in New York City?
MP: I don’t think that there is a date that’s certain. I think New Yorkers should expect 5G to be coming in the next few years, but I think those who would give you a date just don’t have the evidence to support that kind of prognostication.