By Jim Hayes

The op/ed by Councilmember McKeown brings up an interesting topic, but some of the issues could use a bit more complete information. And technical explanation. I’m a former telecom entrepreneur, now a technical writer, curriculum developer and educator in telecommunications, so I’d like to take a crack at it. My actual job is running, along with my wife Karen, the FOA – Fiber Optic Association – the international professional society of fiber optics. We have 200+ schools in 40+ countries around the world that have trained and certified about 75,000 fiber optic technicians, including many of the installers building fiber optic networks here in Santa Monica and Southern California.

What does fiber optics have to do with wireless, you might ask? Those cellular sites are mostly connected on optical fiber, so we actually offer training and certification for techs in “Fiber Optics For Wireless.” Not only does fiber make your mobile devices like smart phones and tablets work, it is the backbone of the Internet, connects those cameras and smart traffic lights at intersections and connects up city offices, libraries, schools and many businesses here in Santa Monica.

Back to those wireless sites, as they are called. The older sites, the ones on high towers and the sides or roofs of some buildings, have big antennas that many workers in the business call “ironing boards” for their shape. Those antennas are designed to cover large areas, many miles, so they need a lot of power. Each antenna has around 40 watts of radio frequency power to reach the range required. A full cell tower can have dozens of these antennas so the total power is substantial and would be dangerous to workers near them. So to work on them, they generally shut them off and work on them in the middle of the night when most people are sleeping. But working on those towers in the dark is dangerous work, making this a very dangerous job.

The new installations of small cellular antennas on street lights that are being made in Santa Monica and many other SoCal neighborhoods are called “small cells.” Small cells are designed to cover small areas, a couple of blocks, and as a result, small cells don’t need much power. A typical small cell has a power output comparable to a WiFi antenna (called an access point) you use for wireless indoors for your laptops, phones, tablets and maybe even TVs and home automation devices. I’ll bet 99% of the homes in Santa Monica have at least one WiFi antenna and a handful of devices with WiFi antennas built into them. Are any of you worried about them?

These small cells are not “5G” wireless. They are current generation 4G or LTE systems, just like the big cell towers, just lower power for smaller service areas. 5G is not even a standard for cellular systems. As a speaker at a recent wireless conference I attended said, “5G is not a standard, it is a GOAL.” The only installations of 5G are small experimental sites being tested by wireless service providers. You cannot buy a 5G phone today because the industry has not agreed what 5G is.

What has been proposed for 5G is to use higher frequency radio waves for transmission – really high frequencies. That’s because higher frequencies can transmit more information. But there are technical difficulties. The very high frequencies proposed are absorbed by rain, fog, leaves and completely stopped by walls and, yes, people. All that water in your body stops the high frequencies proposed for some 5G systems completely. I’ve heard people say that using 5G indoors would require antennas in every room of a building or house to get full coverage. That’s going to be very expensive, worry a lot of people – including me – about health issues – and is probably makes it a non-starter.

Perhaps you are familiar with the one constant of high-tech, HYPE. If you believed everything you read about tech in the last decade, or maybe the last year or two, you’d think today we’ll all be riding around in self-driven cars, taking vacations in space, and having a drop of blood analyzed for every possible ailment under the sun. Ain’t happening for a long time, if ever. Same for 5G.

As I walk around the streets here in Santa Monica, I’m happy to see all those small cells going in. That’s because cellular service in my neighborhood is absolutely awful. It has not gotten better in the last dozen years, even with a change in service provider. Based on what I know about small cells, including what I’ve learned from people we’ve trained on fiber optics, I think it has the best chance of improving our wireless service. And it’s hard to get upset about small cells from an aesthetics point of view when they are added to the poles of street lights like the one pictured above.

Jim Hayes, President The Fiber Optic Association Inc.

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