The future of 5G in Ithaca | Ithaca

Sam Fried

ITHACA, NY — Infrastructure that would support 5G networks could very well expand in Ithaca this year, after Common Council members outlined guidelines regulating the installation of 5G cell towers at the tail end of last year. Commonly known as the next generation in mobile networking technology, 5G — which […]

ITHACA, NY — Infrastructure that would support 5G networks could very well expand in Ithaca this year, after Common Council members outlined guidelines regulating the installation of 5G cell towers at the tail end of last year.

Commonly known as the next generation in mobile networking technology, 5G — which stands for the fifth generation of standards set by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in order to regulate cellular networks — has several applications for consumers, tech laborers and businesses. The small cells, or small towers, required to enable 5G in an area relay information between devices at a rapid speed, and have increased bandwidth that provides faster download speeds. In the last year, the Common Council has attempted to thread the needle between providing access to said mobile networks and hearing residents and advocates’ environmental and health and safety concerns, all the while seemingly avoiding potential litigation from Verizon for delaying the installation of 5G equipment.

The city hired Long Island-based attorney Andrew Campanelli to assess the measures local officials can take to control where 5G can be deployed in Ithaca. Ultimately, this resulted in the city approving amendments to city codes to oversee the installation of small cells via a vote of 7-2 back in October.

These small cells can be placed at the following utility sites:

  • Utility transmission towers
  • Public water tanks
  • Inside or concealed around steeples or similar architectural features
  • Rooftops
  • Utility poles in publicly owned rights-of-way or similar public properties as identified by the city of Ithaca

Any small cell wireless facility, according to the statute, shall be 250 feet or more from any residence, school, or day care facility and 1,500 feet or more from any other small cell wireless facility proposed or installed. The city codes list the following locations for small cell installation in order of preference, from most preferred location to least preferred:

1. Industrial zone

2. Commercial zone

3. Mixed commercial and residential zone

4. Residential zone.

Avoidance areas for small cell infrastructure include flood hazard zones, and historically and culturally significant resources, according to city codes.

Alderperson Ducson Nguyen has “vehemently” opposed some of the amendments to the code, labeling them as too restrictive. Nguyen noted that as of this month some providers have already reached out to the city to begin installing small-cell infrastructure.

“Some providers have reached out for installation — I think Verizon and AT&T — but I think they will find that our new rules are so restrictive that they will be able to add little to no new infrastructure, which is to the detriment of our residents,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen, a software engineer, noted restrictions — such as the provision that requires small cells to be 250 feet away from education centers and residences — will leave telecommunication companies with no options.

“Though there may be other small areas, [amending the city code] means small cells have to be in South Hill, the part of the city where the big box stores are,” Nguyen said. That leaves the city with very little.”

A lack of 5G infrastructure, he said, can already be felt during highly-populated events in Ithaca.

“I see it at the [Ithaca Farmers Market] and other highly populated events, where on a busy summer day you will already have trouble connecting to the internet or even sending messages,” Nguyen added. “We are going to see a degradation of service moving forward as companies decommission their older equipment. It is going to be hard to keep up with the latest technology.”

The current standard for measuring the effectiveness of cellular service is testing for dropped calls, which is something Nguyen fought to change. In October, he introduced an amendment that shifted that standard, instead suggesting 5G small cell applications could be considered if data speeds dip below a download speed of 10 mbps.

“The standard of using drop calls for determining that an area needs additional service is completely antiquated,” Nguyen said. “I actually agree that our current wireless speeds are fine. What I’m worried about is increased capacity as more people come here and being ready for the future.”

Although initially being approved by the council, the amendment was repealed via a vote of 7-3 in December.

Members of the council and the public spoke in support of reverting back to the previous standards for testing cellular service.

Ducson Nguyen

Jerone Galiano, an environmental consultant with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, said during the Dec. 1 Common Council meeting that, while well-intentioned, shifting the standard would “set the city up for failure.”

“We already have sufficient data speed within Ithaca, which I utilize and I am thankful for that. But because speeds vary so much by the time of day, the carrier, and the device, a telecommunications applicant can submit and cherry pick false records of insufficient speeds as their proof of gap in coverage in order to install as many wireless transmitters as they can,” Galiano said. “It’d be nearly impossible to verify the accuracy of their measurements and it’d just become a time consuming burden for a city to prove otherwise.

Galiano called the proposed new standard a “loophole.”

“Having that new standard only opens the loophole for applicants to bypass the codes that aim at minimizing unnecessary redundant infrastructure and affect the downtown aesthetic,” he added.

Alderperson George McGonigal introduced the resolution to strike down Nguyen’s amendment.

“[During the Oct. 6 council meeting] the council sought to balance the simultaneous objectives of enabling wireless carriers to provide services in the city, while also protecting the city’s zoning authority,” McGonigal said. “The council also sought to balance concerns minimizing the number of facilities used to provide such coverage, avoid unnecessary redundant wireless infrastructure, and avoiding to the greatest extent possibly any adverse impacts on residential communities.”

Small-cell 5G infastructure has drawn vocal skeptics who oppose the implementation of the technology. Facebook accounts and members of groups such as “Ithaca No 5G” and “Ithacans for Responsible Technology” have spoken during public comment sections of Common Council meetings citing environmental, health and safety concerns surrounding 5G infrastructure.

Claire Curran, cybersecurity Fellow at the University of Washington’s International Policy Institute, noted in a 2020 article that the main environmental issues associated with the implementation of 5G networks come with the manufacturing of the many component parts of the 5G infrastructure.

“In addition, the proliferation of new devices that will use the 5G network that is tied to the acceleration of demand from consumers for new 5G-dependent devices will have serious environmental consequences,” she argues. “The 5G network will inevitably cause a large increase in energy usage among consumers, which is already one of the main contributors to climate change. Additionally, the manufacturing and maintenance of the new technologies associated with 5G creates waste and uses important resources that have detrimental consequences for the environment. 5G networks use technology that has harmful effects on birds, which in turn has cascading effects through entire ecosystems.”

As for health concerns, public health experts and researchers have in some cases concluded 5G does not pose significantly added danger that isn’t already caused by the constant exposure surrounded by electromagnetic radiation found in most developed nations.


For the average consumer, 5G could alleviate concerns of a lack of choice when it comes to internet speed offerings and providers, said Nate Foster, a computer science professor at Cornell University.

“We have really terrible internet service. We don’t have a lot of choice, and the speeds we get are not that great,” said Foster, whose research team was awarded a $30 million grant by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a fully programmable computer network to bolster internet security and stimulate market competition. “The [COVID-19] pandemic has shown us how important internet access can be for education as it moves toward an online environment. Lots of people are also working from home so internet service becomes this really critical infrastructure that can make the difference between your livelihood for lots of people.”

According to BroadbandNow New York, an organization that charts access to broadband internet in cities and counties across the state, the average download speed in Ithaca is 92.16 mbps. While this download speed is higher than the federal threshold for broadband internet, which is 25 mbps in download speeds and 3 mbps in upload speeds, the average download speed in Ithaca is still 65 percent slower than the average speed in New York, and close to 17 percent slower than the national average.

Further, data from BroadbandNow New York indicates there are 13 internet service providers for residential customers in Ithaca, with Spectrum being available to approximately 97 percent of city residents. Nine of these telecommunication companies provide internet services that meet the federal government’s definition of broadband internet.

“From the point of view of bringing broadband to our county, 5G could really accelerate the transition to high-speed broadband,” Foster said. “It would be great if we could blanket the county with fiber optic internet services to every home, but that is really expensive. With 5G, the bandwidths and the performance characteristics of the network service you get are big enough that you could help accelerate the transition to high speed broadband on the cheap.”

Foster, who is also a consultant for Intel, noted 5G could help advance applications of services and technologies powered by cloud computing, such as autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.

“There are a bunch of futuristic applications, a lot of them involving video or artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and robots… all these futuristic things where keeping the data and the computation in a cloud data center that’s thousands of miles away is just not gonna work,” Foster said. “It’s going to be too slow, so you’re gonna need to have a higher bandwidth flank. A lot of people think that 5G is the missing piece there.”

For local programmers, Nguyen said, 5G could prove vital.

“One of the great things about innovation is that we can anticipate the things that are born out of fundamental new technologies,” he said, using high-speed, gigabit internet, which starts at a threshold of 1,000 mbps download speeds, as a comparison. “It’s hard to predict what can be done locally with this technology, but without those fundamental improvements, it’s hard to kickstart new uses for it.”

For companies in Ithaca’s “great mix” of a tech scene, Foster said, 5G availability could also help improve daily operations. Foster used GrammaTech, the software company which has a research center on Esty Street, as an example.

“GrammaTech does a lot of work in cybersecurity and analyzing software systems to find vulnerabilities and prevent vulnerabilities, so that this is a space where they could [use 5G technology],” he said.

Foster’s research in developing an “open-source 5G network,” which could increase market competition by simplifying small cell technology, could also help institutions like Cornell.

“This can be kind of the critical catalyst that helps some of these companies build their products,” he said. “That is pretty exciting as well.”

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