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Fixed Wireless Access: Don't Forget the Human Factor

by Dan Grossman | Nov 07, 2022

A recent news article in the New York Times highlights the challenges in bringing high-speed broadband to urban locations with fixed wireless.

The Digital Divide does not only affect rural communities. Although urban areas are rich targets for marketing FTTH and cable services, they also can be extremely challenging places to build networks. Sometimes the economics of doing so just doesn't work. Often, these unserved pockets are economically disadvantaged communities, which have neither the ease of construction enjoyed by operators in rural areas, nor the high ARPU associated with affluent urban and suburban communities.

The City of New York has been diligently trying to close its Digital Divide for years. The city's LinkNYC program -- a public-private consortium -- has been placing kiosks at former payphone sites, to provide WiFi and, for those without capable devices, basic Internet browsing. The system was intended to be ad-supported, with kiosk-mounted displays. The program has not been particularly successful, as ad revenues turned out lower than expected and the concept has not stood up well to the gritty realities of city street life.

Recently, LinkNYC and its private sector partner CityBridge inked an agreement to place 2000 small cell sites, many of them at payphone locations, especially in underserved upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs. In addition to 5G services, the sites also provide free WiFi and phone service. This should go a long way to connecting the 1.5 million city residents who lack both fixed and mobile broadband service. The new business model involves leasing space to mobile operators. All sounds like a good plan, right?

CityBridge commissioned the design of the towers for these sites based on LinkNYC requirements. The towers have to be tall enough to meet FCC rules, and accommodate two mmWave small cells, two mid-band or mmWave small cells, and outdoor WiFi. The design, as near as I can tell, checks all the boxes for fitness-for-function... but it's just plain ugly.

NYC Small Cell (Photo: Renee Collymore)Photo: Renee Collymore

New Yorkers have a reputation for "kvetching" (complaining) about matters large and small. As the new towers were deployed, many residents were outraged. Complaints included lack of communication, the brutalist aesthetics of the towers, their height and mass, the siting of some of them just in front of residential windows, and unfounded fears of radiation. Neighborhood activists reached out to their representatives and the press. The story hasn't played out yet but at a minimum this has hurt the reputation of LinkNYC and its partners. In the worst case, some of the towers will have to be moved or removed.

Operators seeking to build FWA should learn from LinkNYC's experience:

  • Design Matters.  There isn't much that can be done to make a small cell unobtrusive, but give some thought to how it will look to the people who have to live with it.
  • Consider using existing street furniture rather than adding new. Even if every light pole on the block has a small cell, it's still less obtrusive than a multi-tenant site.
  • Communicate. Early. This was probably LinkNYC's biggest mistake. People don't like to be surprised by a bulky object suddenly arriving in their neighborhood without explanation.
  • Be thoughtful. When deploying in residential in residential areas, remember the people who live there. Nobody wants their view suddenly blocked by a tower.
  • ;RF phobias are real. We know that a site designed and operated within regulatory guidelines is safe. Many people don't believe it. Operators should take every opportunity to reassure the public.The industry should step up its efforts to combat RF disinformation.


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