5G is coming.

The much-anticipated fifth generation of wireless communication promises to deliver on a host of futuristic technologies, including self-driving cars, real-time virtual reality, and “smart” cities and towns.

“The advent of 5G is groundbreaking and will likely have a huge impact on the way we communicate with each other and with our modern devices,” says Michael Leitman, an NRECA strategic analyst.

Leitman notes that the 5G network will require new national infrastructure that will take several years to install. The network will radically improve the bandwidth, capacity, and reliability of wireless mobile and will likely supplement rather than replace today’s 4G technology.

But for all its promise, the deployment of 5G may present challenges for electric co-ops and other utilities.

The platform relies on a dense network of small, connected antennae to deliver fast speeds with low latency (responsiveness). A single 5G antenna, which will cover about 250 meters, weighs only a few grams. But some parts of the system are designed for so-called block-matrix mounting, where hundreds of the devices are packed in arrays. These come with additional equipment, including control units, backup batteries, and other devices housed in refrigerator-sized metal or composite boxes.

The success of 5G rests in part on evenly distributed coverage in any given area. In electric cooperative territories, distribution poles will likely bear a significant portion of this burden.

“Outside of urban areas, the poles owned by electric cooperatives and other utilities are the most common existing structures with the necessary height for attaching the equipment,” Leitman says.

And there is concern in the industry that the additional weight could affect pole performance and maintenance.

“Any foreign attachment that departs from the design and construction of the original overhead line could introduce significant engineering, safety, and reliability issues,” says Robert Harris, senior principal engineer in NRECA’s Business and Technology Strategies group. “Co-ops and other utility providers are concerned about the added weight on the poles, and how that will affect their stability and integrity during wind and ice storms, or prolonged rain events.”

The Race to 5G

Wooden poles have been iconic symbols of electric cooperatives since they were raised to support power lines for rural communities 80 years ago.

Most co-op poles are 40 feet long and set 6 feet deep. The top 4 to 12 feet are typically used for high-voltage electric equipment, including lines and transformers. Telecom attachments must be installed at or below a prescribed safety buffer.

The Wireless Industry Association has its sights set on a zone 6 to 8 feet above ground for the heaviest 5G equipment. That’s high enough for security and offers the economic benefits of pole attachments, which are traditionally charged lower rates than ground-mounted equipment on public rights-of-way.

“Some of that equipment could be near energized lines, so training, safety, and potential service reliability issues need to be considered,” Harris says.

The race to 5G could have a major impact on the oversight of pole attachments and cooperatives’ local control, says Tammy Embry, an NRECA senior legislative adviser. As the wireless industry pushes for uniform national attachment rules and lower rates, co-ops could be faced with new federal regulations that impinge on decades-long right-of-way relationships with private landowners and state and local jurisdictions.

NRECA and its member cooperatives are supporting a resolution opposing regulatory authority over pole attachments by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

“Congress long ago recognized the consumer-focused nature and democratic local control inherent in the cooperative business model and exempted electric cooperatives from federal pole attachment regulation,” Embrey says.

Nineteen states have enacted legislation to streamline pole attachment policies and reduce rates for small cell and 5G deployment.

“Legislators in all of those states have had the foresight to make sure these rules do not apply to electric cooperatives,” says Brian O’Hara, NRECA’s senior director of regulatory issues, adding that several states have excluded electric utilities more broadly from new pole attachment regulations, citing their critical infrastructure status.

Compensation and Compromise

Full compensation for pole-attachment costs cannot be guaranteed with a uniform regulatory policy, O’Hara says, and artificially low rates could burden co-op members with undue costs, effectively subsidizing large, for-profit telecommunications companies.

“In some cases, the addition of foreign attachments may necessitate installation of taller or stronger poles, relocation of poles, or additional poles, increasing costs to the electric cooperative members,” he says. “Each cooperative is unique and faces specific challenges and costs. Pole-attachment rates should reflect the actual cost of providing attachment service.”

NRECA has joined several entities representing utility, telecommunication, and communication technology interests in calling for cross-industry compromises on spectrum issues related to 5G technology and its deployment. A letter outlining their position was submitted to the FCC on May 9 and includes measures that will help ensure options of some local involvement in how the technology is deployed and administered.

5G technology is expected to take root at first in densely populated areas before extending into nearby suburbs. It could be several years before it arrives in rural communities distant from major metropolitan areas, and it may never be extended to isolated locations.