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FAQ City: What Are All Those Black Poles Popping Up In Charlotte?

David B. Smith of Charlotte Department of Transportation points out a Verizon Wireless 5G tower in Southpark. He oversees permits for communications companies that want to use city rights-of-way.
David Boraks
David B. Smith of Charlotte Department of Transportation points out a Verizon Wireless 5G tower in Southpark. He oversees permits for communications companies that want to use city rights-of-way.

A crop of new utility poles and wires is starting to appear around Charlotte. You've probably sped right by them and barely noticed. These poles are black metal, about the size of a wooden utility pole, with a strange cylinder on top. And those wires — you see them hanging from utility poles, or sticking up out of the grass along the roadside. What could all this work be?

Verizon is putting up 5G poles around uptown and the Southpark area, including this one on Cameron Valley Parkway.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Verizon is putting up 5G poles around uptown and the SouthPark area, including this one on Cameron Valley Parkway.

One person who did notice all these new poles and wires was Houston VanHoy, who suggested "FAQ City" look into it. 

“I live in the SouthPark area. And over the last year or so I've seen a lot of heavy cables being installed haphazardly throughout our area … plus other areas that are nearby, such as Arrowood and Westinghouse," Van Hoy said. "And I wondered why these were being put in.

“And then more recently, I think probably starting last summer, I started seeing unusual utility poles being put in. I haven't really seen any news stories about it and that's why I wondered."

VanHoy has been paying attention – very close attention. He listed a half-dozen specific locations where he's seen either wires or poles, mostly around SouthPark. And those poles have been spotted uptown as well. There's actually one right outside the window of WFAE's Spirit Square studio, where we produce "Charlotte Talks."  

VanHoy was curious — maybe even a bit suspicious. 

“It’s not something about (the) Deep State as far as I'm concerned, but it just seems that somebody would tell us what was going on,” he said.

Could It Be 5G?

VanHoy actually thinks it's all related to 5G — the speedier next generation of wireless communications that's being advertised everywhere.

He’s mostly right.  

To find out more, I got together with David Smith at Charlotte Department of Transportation, or CDOT.  He's the guy in charge of permits for any work on or beside city streets.  

We visited one of these new black poles, on a side street across from SouthPark Mall.  

“So what we're looking at is a Verizon Wireless pole,” he said. “This particular pole is a single use in that it's just for Verizon Wireless. What we try and do at CDOT is, where possible, push utilities to co-locate on existing poles, such as Duke Energy and streetlights.

"What you'll notice on this particular street is it's all distribution poles. So there are no suitable street lights to co-locate those antennas on. And obviously, if there's no infrastructure for the utility to attach to, then they're allowed to install their own poles, which is what has happened on this street.”

City Permit Needed 

So, what do wireless carriers building 5G networks here in Charlotte have to do?

Smith said they need to contact CDOT, which maintains close relationships with not just the wireless carriers but all the utilities that operate within the city rights-of-way.

“These utilities hold what is called a master permit. So, master permit holders have to renew the agreement every year. And it's basically a legal document that allows them to operate within the city right-of-way,” Smith said.  

So, back to our black power pole here. It's about two stories tall — a single black metal pole with a black box on top. These poles are different from the tall towers you see elsewhere, that hold the current generation of wireless equipment, known as 4G.

Several companies have sought city permission to install 5G equipment, Smith said.

“The main folks that are deploying at the moment are Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Sprint and T-Mobile are a little active, but less so,” he said.

And then there are independent companies that build poles and towers on behalf of wireless phone companies. But Smith said that's changing with 5G. For one thing, these are smaller than traditional mobile phone towers, and in some cases closer together. Smith said now the big wireless carriers seem to favor building and owning their own poles. 

Wireless Companies Quiet

Verizon did not respond to our request for comment about where they're building. The company does have a map on its website that shows 5G coverage right now only in the SouthPark and uptown areas. 

AT&T says its 5G is available in parts of Charlotte. T-Mobile's online map shows the most coverage, over a wide area of Charlotte and beyond.  A Sprint spokeswoman says only that the company hasn't announced plans for 5G in Charlotte.

I guess it's not surprising that these competitors don't want to tip one another off about their plans. 

Smith didn't know how many 5G transmitters have gone up so far but said the major wireless companies plan to add several hundred over the next year or so. 

Marketing Blitz For 5G

So what is 5G and why all the hype? And when will we get it? We'll get to that in just a minute. But first, did you see all those Super Bowl commercials? 

“5G is going to change a lot of things, but luckily for all of us, not everything,” says a voice on a Verizon ad about using 5G in public safety.

In T-Mobile’s commercial, actor Anthony Anderson picks up a series of phone calls from his mother:

“Hey, watcha need, Mama? I'm trying to watch the game with my boys,” he says.

“It works in the park," says his mother.

Another ring, and Anderson says: “Mama?”

“It works at the aquarium... In the parking garage. … At the beach,” she says.

Five-G stands for fifth generation, which is where we are in the evolution of wireless phones. It's a big deal for a couple of reasons: First, it's hundreds of times faster than today's 4G mobile phones. It's also faster than super-fast home data connections, like Google Fiber. And the technology will connect all the self-driving cars, refrigerators, machines and other gadgets on what's called the "internet of things" — where just about everything is connected to the network

Klint Finley
Credit Mark Graves
Klint Finley

Why The Excitement?

Portland, Oregon-based tech reporter Klint Finley wrote "The Wired Guide to 5G" in the December for Wired magazine.

“The medium-term promise is that it's going to be just exponentially faster than 4G. That you'll be able to do things like download high-definition films, like 4k films, in seconds instead of minutes, or, you know, as it might be today, like tens of minutes,” Finley said.

“The other big feature is lower latency, which means the time it takes to get a response between two parts of the network. So that could be really important for applications in cars, any sort of connected-car applications, self-driving cars, if we ever get that far,” he said. 

Finley said another big promise of 5G is that its greater capacity will allow us to connect a lot more individual devices without overloading the network.   

And to get technical for just a minute: Finley says the leap from 4G to 5G in some ways is not as technologically radical as the hype might make it seem. But one big difference is its use of more types of wireless spectrum. Those are the radio frequencies that mobile phones use to communicate with poles and towers. Five-G will use current frequencies, and some new ones that will eventually allow greater speeds.  

“So, the thing that's gotten the most attention is what people call the ‘millimeter wave’ spectrum. That's what could enable the fastest speeds in 5G,” Finley said. “But the limitation is that the distance that these waves can reliably travel is pretty short. Things like trees, people can get in the way pretty easily compared to the lower end of the spectrum that's traditionally been used for cellphones and analog radio, things like that.”  

That's why 5G transmitters will need to be closer together on poles and buildings and in more direct line of site than today's 4G equipment. Finley said instead of having one big tower for an entire neighborhood, 5G eventually could have dozens of smaller antennas in the same area. He calls them "microcells." 

OK, But When?

I know what you really want to know is when will we get this?  Don’t hold your breath, said Finley. It's still very early in the transition. Carriers like Verizon and T-mobile are rolling out limited service in Charlotte, but the equipment will only be 20% faster than 4G.  Full-speed 5G is still in the future. 

“It's not the revolution that people talk about,” Finley said. “I think we're a long way from seeing the millimeter wave speeds being really widely deployed. I think that could take a decade or more before we really see all of that.” 

That may be a good thing. To use 5G, you'll need a new phone — one that right now will cost you $1,000.  And here's another indication that 5G isn't here yet:  Apple doesn't even have a 5G phone yet.  

Conduit for high-speed communications lines is popping up all over Charlotte.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE
Conduit for high-speed communications lines is popping up all over Charlotte.

Wires Above And Below

Meanwhile, what about Houston VanHoy's question about all those new cables?

It might be 5G or it might not. Finley said eventually the phone companies want to connect their networks wirelessly. But for now, they're using fiber-optic cable, which could explain the large amount of new cable being buried and strung around town. 

But CDOT's David Smith — the right-of-way guy — said it also could be Google Fiber or other phone or cable companies expanding their networks.   

Do you have a question about the Charlotte region you'd like us to look into? Send it our way! Submit your question in the box below, and we may be in touch.


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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.