The future of really fast wireless internet is here. Sorta.
U.S. wireless carriers are gearing up for the long process of building infrastructure to support 5G technology in the El Paso region and the rest of the nation.
The much-hyped technology promises to transform industries and boost economies, paving the way for everything from driverless cars to smarter factory automation.
But implementing it will not be easy.
Vertical 1 Communications, a 15-year-old telecommunications company headquartered in El Paso, plays a big part in that work. The company does everything from cell tower site maintenance to construction of new infrastructure for service providers.
Companies will have to install thousands of smaller-scale towers and lay fiber optic cables underground. To do that, they will have to coordinate with city governments and agencies – a process that has been quietly underway in El Paso.
Andrew Dominguez, chief development officer for Vertical 1, said city ordinances that regulate the construction of cell networks could slow down the process, putting El Paso further behind on connectivity and speediness.
“The consumption of data has quadrupled in the past couple years, primarily due to the changes in the media people are looking at and what they’re using as forms of entertainment,” Dominguez said. “In order for us to meet that capacity, we have to substantially increase the amount of infrastructure we have built out.”
To meet that data demand, El Paso will need about 1,000 nodes – the 5G version of cell towers. Dominguez said 5G infrastructure works like a home internet connection, just on a much larger scale.
Each node is connected to fiber optic cables that run underground. Those cables are being laid out across the city, something Dominguez said will require a lot of work and tearing up of streets.
There are several places and neighborhoods in El Paso that have spotty cellular data service. Speed gets even worse the closer you get to the border. Dominguez said the deployment of a 5G network would help with those issues because the network nodes would more fully saturate the area.
The main difference between the future 5G and current 4G networks comes down to speed.
Dominguez said connectivity was once king for customers and service providers. That’s been dethroned by speed as phones rely more than ever on data use.
Trying to scroll through Instagram on an old 3G network is ridiculously frustrating, if not nearly impossible. That’s because the frequency used on a 3G network, measured in megahertz, can travel further distances but cannot carry as much data.
The 5G network is measured in gigahertz, Dominguez said. Gigahertz are 1,000 times the frequency of megahertz and can carry significantly more data. But the signal cannot travel as far. That is why a 5G network would need thousands of nodes spaced closer together than traditional cell towers.
Dominguez said the El Paso 5G nodes would need to be spaced about 100 yards away from each other. The frequency carried by the nodes is also more sensitive to humidity, heavy rain and heat.
“The game used to be coverage. We’re about 99.96% covered with cell service,” Dominguez said. “Now the name of the game has changed to speed.”
Chicago is leading the U.S. in rolling out 5G technology, he said. Other countries, like China, are also making massive strides.
“Beijing has unilateral authority over the approval processes for all the different agencies across the board,” Dominguez said. “The three major communications companies they have out there are all partly state-owned. They provide the access, the licenses for the frequency and fund the expansion with government subsidies.”
In Texas, there are federal, state and municipal guidelines that rule where network providers can place towers and nodes. In El Paso, the city has an extensive ordinance that details where nodes can be placed.
City ordinance 15.10.010 incorporates guidelines given by the state under Senate Bill 1004, passed in 2017.
Dominguez said the ordinances and guidelines have the potential to slow the process of deploying 5G in the city because of the extensive application, review and approval steps.
The United States has about 7,000 to 10,000 nodes built out, Dominguez said, while China has about 150,000. He said he hopes a portion of the 5G network can be built out by 2020.
By 2025, Dominguez said, cell carriers are expected to spend about $300 billion to get the 5G network fully built.
“At that point, we can build about 200,000 to 300,000 of these nodes,” Dominguez said.
Efforts to boost 5G infrastructure in the United States have been hampered by the federal government’s decision to ban Huawei products and technology from domestic infrastructure over concerns about China’s ability to tap into the company for data and intelligence.
Dominguez said Vertical 1 was using Huawei equipment about two years ago before it was told to stop.
“The U.S. Department of Justice said we couldn’t use it,” Dominguez said. “We had some agents come and say we had to send all of this equipment back, and we had to stop all work we were doing and pull off all Chinese equipment we were using.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts, El Paso is still a tricky place for reliable data and cell connectivity speeds. Its location along the border means cell towers from Mexico can sometimes interfere with those on the U.S. side. And having a big mountain that cuts the city in half is no help, either.
And, about those blood pressure-raising dropped calls on the Verizon network.
Dominguez said the problems started after Mexico turned on new cell towers equipped with technology from Ericsson to beef up the 4G network. Since Verizon calls are made and received over the 4G network, and the 4G network was being disrupted by the new towers, the calls started dropping.
“I think this will play a lot in the minds and psychological impressions to see the importance of connectivity,” Dominguez said. “It’s caused a huge loss of time and has impacted business professionals all across the city.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.