Jan 29, 2020

Axios Cities

Hi, friends! I'm (mostly) back after a mild concussion sidelined me for a bit. I appreciate all the nice notes while I was out.

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  • Today's edition is 1,659 words, a 6-minute read.
1 big thing: The battle over 5G deployment in America's cities

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The fate of the national race to build 5G wireless service depends on how effectively the guts of the network — namely, hundreds of thousands of bulky antennas — are placed in cities.

Why it matters: While global tensions mount over pressure to build 5G networks as fast as possible, U.S. cities are in a fight of their own with telecom carriers and federal regulators over how new 5G antennas — or small cells — will be scattered throughout downtowns and neighborhoods.

Driving the news: On Feb. 10, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, California, will hear the case between cities and the Federal Communications Commission over the placement of 5G antennas.

  • Dozens of cities have sued the FCC over its 2018 order requiring faster permitting and limiting the fees communities can charge wireless companies to install backpack-sized antennas on city property.

Context: Wireless companies say one of the biggest hurdles to deploying 5G networks is the need to negotiate with city officials for permission to install small cells, and that some cities were charging excessive fees for access to city property.

  • FCC Republicans argue that uniform limits to streamline the permitting process will speed up 5G rollout and that the money telecom companies save from paying lower permit fees in big cities will help build out the networks in underserved areas faster.
  • "A lot of cities that had high fees have been able to reduce them and reach reasonable agreements with carriers," said Republican FCC commissioner Brendan Carr. "Carriers that are building out need to compromise with cities. Cities need to understand the upside that comes with 5G."

The other side: City leaders, however, say the one-size-fits-all rules undermine their authority to charge market rates for property access. They also say the mandated fee structure weakens their leverage to negotiate wider 5G build-outs that, for example, cover poor neighborhoods as well as rich ones.

What's next: A decision in the lawsuit over 5G infrastructure placement is expected later this year. Until then, the litigation creates uncertainty for both cities and carriers during what is supposed to be a critical time for 5G rollouts.

  • "I don't think, sitting here in Washington, we have the right to tell cities what to do," said Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against the 2018 order. "We've created a lot of anger in cities and states across this country who want to play a role in figuring out what the future of their infrastructure looks like."
2. Diverging 5G paths: A tale of two cities

Two Georgia towns, 10 miles apart in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, have drastically different reactions to the realities of deploying 5G networks:

  • Peachtree Corners, a city of 45,000, invested in early deployment of 5G in hopes it will bring new economic activity.
  • Brookhaven, a city of 57,000, is fed up with telecom companies' demands and is among the cities suing the FCC.

Peachtree Corners

In the 1960s, what is now Peachtree Corners was the site of the area's first "technology park," home to some of the region's early tech firms. The city now wants to be a high-tech hub.

City manager Brian Johnson has been leveraging corporate partnerships — including with Sprint to install 5G service — to become a smart-city testing ground.

The city wants to attract startups to its incubator space called Curiosity Lab, which includes an autonomous vehicle test track and AVs that bring patrons to its restaurants and hotels.

  • All utility lines are underground in the downtown area, so drones can fly freely. Smart street lights and a self-driving trolley are on the main drag. Cameras are equipped with facial recognition software.
  • In addition to setting up its network in the city, Sprint established its 5G "utilization lab" where its experts can meet with companies that want to learn how to leverage 5G.
  • "We've created this sandbox, we put a bunch of toys in it, and we're inviting people to come play," Johnson said.


Down the road, telecom carriers have installed a couple dozen 5G small cells. City leaders aren't happy that they have such little say over where the equipment gets placed.

"People aren't against 5G. They're not against new technologies coming in, but they're definitely against having things willy-nilly plopped in their front lawn," said Christian Sigman, city manager of Brookhaven. "And we're going to get the blame for it because rubber hits the road right here at City Hall."

  • It's not just one telecom company he has to worry about — multiple providers would all need to set up their own equipment to power their own networks.
  • "My fear is that between a one-block segment, which is only maybe five or six addresses, you could have five or six poles ultimately from five different companies," he said.
Bonus: 🎬 Watch the video

Axios talked to FCC commissioners and city officials in Georgia about the legal battle surrounding federal rules for erecting new 5G antennas, and the realities on the ground.

Watch the video

3. The next NIMBY battle: Small cells in neighborhoods

A wireless tower housing 5G small cell technology in the front yard of a home in Brookhaven, Georgia. Photo: Screen shot from Axios video

The not-in-my-backyard battles may soon have a new target: 5G small cells.

  • When it comes to 5G small cell acceptance, a PwC survey of 800 consumers suggests most people are willing to deal with unsightly 5G antennas, especially if they are in someone else's backyard.

By the numbers:

  • 86% said they will accept small cells that "blend into their surroundings."
  • 73% will accept small cells that don't blend in as long as they are not directly in front of their homes.
  • 60% don't care about aesthetics if they can have faster internet service.
"It's one thing to see the installation of the 5G boxes on poles on a main corridor that doesn't offend people. But if you're in a heavily residential area and you're not expecting to see that type of thing, it's almost like having a power transformer in your front yard. People are not going to like those."
— Christian Sigman, city manager of Brookhaven, Georgia

Still, consumers are excited about 5G — and willing to pay more for it — even though they don’t really know what it is, according to a recent Morning Consult poll of 5,600 adults in the U.S. and EU commissioned by IBM.

  • 49% of consumers are very or somewhat excited about 5G, but only 36% said they were even somewhat familiar with the technology.
  • 49% of U.S. consumers said they would be willing to pay more for 5G, but only 4% said they would pay “significantly” more.
  • 38% said they understand the differences between 5G and 4G, but only 7% said they understand the differences “very well.”

Between the lines: There has been a lot of hype about the promise of 5G, but consumers are still struggling with the specifics ahead of widespread rollout — and NIMBY backlash may slow down small cell construction in neighborhoods.

4. Mayors: Water tops city infrastructure needs
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Reproduced from Menino Survey of Mayors, 2019; Chart: Axios Visuals

Water-related infrastructure topped the list of infrastructure priorities for mayors, according to the 2019 Menino Survey of Mayors released this month.

Why it matters: The survey revealed urgency around investments in water, wastewater and stormwater facilities, with mayors 10 percentage points more likely to focus on that issue than four years ago.

  • Extreme weather events and flooding is putting increased pressure on aging structures.
  • A 2018 study found three-quarters of U.S. cities reported that heavy rain events or inland flooding had increased in intensity, frequency or location in the last five years.

The intrigue: When asked which project they would fund if they received a large unrestricted grant, only 4% of the 119 mayors surveyed listed broadband as a top infrastructure need. And broadband didn't make the priority list at all when asked about smaller-scale projects.

Between the lines: Both parties tout the benefits of broadband and 5G as being essential 21st-century infrastructure.

  • But the fact that it's not among the top funding priorities suggests climate-related challenges and crumbling infrastructure like roads and bridges are seen as more pressing.
5. Urban-rural partnerships spread resources beyond city centers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Partnerships between urban and rural municipalities, educational institutions and corporations are beginning to create opportunities to address urban-rural gaps in transit, food security and broadband access, writes Metro21's Karen Lightman for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: The rural-urban divide, particularly with regard to broadband access, boils down to a mismatch in where resources are allocated, and these programs strive to distribute resources beyond urban cores.

What’s happening:

  • The Rural Virginia Initiative is a collaboration between several Virginia colleges and universities to bolster attention and resources for issues like health and health care, job creation, and education in rural parts of the state.
  • The Georgia Smart Communities Challenge is a technical assistance and funding program that brings together various government entities in the state, Georgia Power, researchers at Georgia Tech and more to distribute grants and resources to communities for smart city projects.
  • Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and Waynesburg University in Pennsylvania are collaborating to develop tech-driven interventions to address food insecurity and mobility in nearby rural areas.

But, but, but: When projects move forward without community input, they can raise concerns about surveillance and data collection.

  • And not every solution is one-size-fits-all. While ride-hailing services have helped to fill gaps in the urban transportation infrastructure, lower demand, longer drives and inconsistent cell service make ride-hailing a less attractive option in rural areas.

Karen Lightman is executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

6. Urban files
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Data: FactSet; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Fed manufacturing indexes jump in January, suggesting a rebound may be coming☝️(Axios)

Big Tech goes green but still can't escape climate pressure (Axios)

Paris' mayor has the dream of 'the 15-minute city' (Fast Company)

The tug-of-war over how banks should give back to poor communities (Axios)

JPMorgan Chase commits $22 million for Bay Area housing (SF Chronicle)

Uber braces for clash with EU cities on scooter data (WSJ)

7. 1🦎thing: Florida cold snap stuns iguanas

An iguana chills next to a pond on a golf course. Photo: John McCoy/Getty Images

Axios' Marisa Fernandez reports: South Floridians last week had cold weather with unusual repercussions — unconscious iguanas falling from the trees. (This video is worth a watch.)

Driving the news: Temperatures in the 30s and 40s stunned the reptiles, but didn't necessarily kill them. Many woke up as temperatures rose again, per the National Weather Service of Miami.

  • Though rare, serious cold snaps of more than three days can be fatal.

Why it matters: As average temperatures continue to rise in South Florida, the invasive species' population has increased dramatically in recent years, Bloomberg reports. Southern districts are being forced to assess damages from their presence.

Hope you have a great, fully conscious week ahead.