Here’s the thing. Most people think they know what is on a smart pole. The reality is, most people have no idea. A pole can’t hold everything. Actually, it can hold everything but that would never pass most city ordinances. That’s why the carriers all fight to have poles of their own. They all want agreements directly with cities rather than through another. However, I am not sure that this model can sustain.
The FCC already helped the carriers streamline the site acquisition process and lower rent. That part is resolved. It still takes time and the carriers have to follow rules that the local municipality sets, but now it’s better defined. However, I hear so many people think you can cram everything into one pole. They think, “if we build it, they will come” and hope for the best. That is hope, not a strategy. The reality is, we should understand what each pole is going to do and what it will be needed for. So, I thought I would break this down into sections. Feel free to go to the section that applies to you.
The reality is that small cells haven’t been doing well. I know, you’re like “WHAT?”. I am here to tell you that small cells quickly get overload. Carriers know this and that is why they prefer to have control of the entire pole. They need to have options. Like what? I am glad you asked!
- Small cells can’t take the loading with the number of subs or the amount of data throughput required.
- Small cells have to be tested and approved for the system.
So what is the alternative? It’s what Verizon and AT&T have been doing for years. They are putting in a CRAN system which is basically oDAS. Outdoor DAS where you have a nearby BBU hotel, preferably less than 25 kilometers from the farthest site, and it feeds radio heads. Each radio head is basically a sector on a tower.
Why is this better than a typical small cell? Because it has the full functionality of a macro site sector, which is probably 10 to 100 times more powerful than 60% of the small cells in the market today. Thus, having a full BBU controlling the radio head, you have all the capabilities of a macro site inside a smart pole. There are more reasons than just that. The BBUs of 5G can be from multiple vendors, yet they are probably a vendor that the carrier is already working with and the products are generally GA’ed, generally accepted, into the carriers network. The problem with small cells from many vendors is that they don’t keep up with the new features, loading, and spectrum available. Spectrum is a huge deal today. Look at all the different bands and technologies out there. Each carrier is operating in several bands, like 700MHz, 800MHz, 1.1GHz, 1.2GHz, 1.8GHz, 2.5GHz, and mmwave. All of this can be controlled from the same BBU if designed properly. Today’s radio heads are smaller and many can handle multiple bands. IT makes sense to want to have it look like a macro sector rather than a one-off small cell. Now, I am not ruling out small cells altogether. In fact, many of them are used in smaller coverage areas or in places where the loading is lighter. Loading could be lighter if there is Wi-Fi offload available. Also, if there is a small area that is not near any hubs, then small cells make economic sense. So the system has to be planned and well thought out with the option to make additions and changes at a later date.
I have to tell you, almost every smart pole has a Wi-Fi option. I can’t think of one that doesn’t, it’s just a matter of what vendor is in there. However, who is going to provide backhaul and maintenance? That’s the problem. We all love free Wi-Fi until we have to pay for it. The same goes for people installing in poles. Who is providing the business of the internet that everyone expects free? Even cities balk at the idea! In all honesty, most smart poles don’t turn up the Wi-Fi because it doesn’t make sense unless it’s an urban setting. Wi-Fi sounds great and is very cheap, but who will maintain and connect it. If you look at the Comcast model, they generally strand mount most of their Wi-Fi units with DOCSIS backhaul. They don’t need to put them in smart poles. However, moving forward, poles should have the option regardless. Even if it’s added in later.
This could be anything. Let’s break it down. Cameras are the obvious option to put on a pole. While this sounds well and good, many people don’t like having a camera right outside their home. Cameras provide so many functions. They are great for security, surveillance, data collection, amber alerts, traffic monitoring, live video feeds, weather updates, and more. They solve so many problems, especially when connected with AI. By the way, cameras can do a lot with AI. They can use facial recognition o find bad guys, but that freaks people out for some reason. I guess they would rather have bad guys roaming around as long as the camera does see what they’re doing. Privacy and all. It also allows traffic, both cars, and people, to be monitored and reported in real-time. It can read license plates for security or parking. It can track weather or flooding. It can help identify open parking spaces.
But, again, if the locals complain and push back, you may have to remove it or not add it in the first place. The privacy issue is huge! If you watch movies then you know there some government agency that cares more about taking you down than doing their job. For some reason, they always have the money to hunt down civilians when medical research falls by the wayside. When I deal with the government they don’t have enough money to fix potholes. So how do they spend millions to track down some yahoo who ran a traffic light or violated some law no one knew about? Listening devices are another great option. You have shot spotter which detects gunshots and paired with AI to triangulate where the shot came from and what type of gun it was. It is a very intelligent system that when tied into the e911 dispatch centers dispatchers can alert police before they get any calls. The police can head to a specific section of town and look for suspicious activity. Trust me, shooting a gun in an urban area is suspicious activity! Air/environmental sensors are something that the federal government wanted to deploy in case there was ever a gas or environmental attack in the US. Remember the dirty bomb? That was a fear for a long time after 9/11. This is another smart pole feature that is available today. Parking and driving features are also a common city “want” when planning a pole. They usually want to make sure that smart cars can connect and talk, report accidents or broken down vehicles, and track traffic conditions. Metering and parking space availability is a key feature in smart poles. Cities can gain a lot of revenue by tracking parking spaces, making that information available to would-be visitors, and then offering a way to pay with your smartphone or credit card. Too often cities don’t take away the obstacles of visiting a city. Most people today don’t carry quarters, and they want to know where to park without circling the block 32 times. If cities want to be smart, then they will help people understand the needs and conveniences of visiting downtown. Take away the obstacles, make it known, offer value and entertainment, and then the people will come! Again, many cities think that people want to come downtown for no reason. To them, I ask, “Then why do so many people leave and move to the suburbs?”. Smart lighting is technically an IOT function, I discuss separately below because it is often broken out from all other options.
Video displays are also valuable. They could offer citizens a way to find businesses, buildings, offices, stores, etc. I am a fan of smart displays. They offer a way for people to get around and if there is an emergency they can guide people to a safe place. I see value in them, but not a sustainable business case.
Is it a Lamp Post? If it is, then someone has to manage the lights. Today they would be LED lights. But someone has to pay the electric bill, make sure they go on at dusk and off at dawn unless it’s residential, then you want it to go off when the neighbors go to bed. No one likes a bright light piercing their bedroom window 2 in the morning! The system should be monitored and someone will have to repair it if it gets damaged or fails. Chances are good it will go back to a NOC to be monitored and controlled. Smart lighting is the number one reason cities and utilities deploy smart poles. If they do it right, then they have space for additional tenant for growth and future income. If they don’t then they lose out on the features and income that comes with proper planning. You would be surprised how shortsighted many of these people are!
What do they all have in common?
All of the above need a few things to happen. For one, they need a pole that can support and house the equipment. It has to have enough room for all of it. Not only the room but the ability to run the cabling through the pole in an aesthetically pleasing structure. They need to be quiet, neighbors complain about noise, especially fans. They need to be structurally sound and solid. They need to be secure. They need to be able to withstand a car hitting them, or at least have breakaway bolts so it goes over nice and easy without destroying the sidewalk. It’s up to the municipality to determine how it is mounted and what it should look like. Then there is the owner of the pole. Is it a carrier, utility, city, WISP, or garbage company? They need to maintain the pole and collect rent. They need to make sure the lights stay on if it’s a lamp post. They need to replace it when some texting teenage hits it with her SUV. It has to be maintained and kept looking good. They need backhaul, whether its a wireless backhaul or fiber run to the pole. They all need backhaul to connect them to another system. Most IOT functions work great with wireless backhaul whereas a carrier might want fiber for a 5G connection. Wi-Fi could use either effectively. By the way, most US carriers do NOT want to share fiber. They prefer home runs, not access to an ISP and VPN tunnels. They need to have the remote radio head connect directly to the BBU without delay or getting routed through the Philippines. Timing is critical and delays can destroy systems. Finally, each system for lighting, IOT, 4G, or 5G needs an owner. It’s great that people want to deploy populated poles, but the reality is most service providers want to install their own equipment because it is what they are already using and supporting. Carriers have to make sure something not only works on their system but is secure and won’t cause problems. They need to run everything through the lab and then FIT to get it accepted. Finally, it needs an owner. The 5G and 5G systems are obvious, a carrier has to install, commission, and maintain it. The IOT and Wi-Fi systems are completely different. Most companies that deploy them must have the money and infrastructure to support them. It is not an option to say that it’s in the pole. If someone doesn’t own them, then what? Nothing. So today utilities are starting to deploy and maintain these systems. Some public safety groups are rolling them out.
So what will actually be in the smart pole?
- Radios, lots of radios and antennas;
- Fiber jumpers, fiber demarcations, fiber terminations, lot of fiber;
- Power for AC and DC, to power various equipment;
- Sensors for air quality,
- Microphones for listening devices like shot spotter;
- Cameras for security and AI functions;
- Maybe RF jumpers, depending on the applications;
- Wi-Fi hotspots, I would put this under radios but most people don’t know any better;
- Maybe edge servers, depending on the applications;
- Lighting if it’s a lamppost, probably LED lighting with remote control and maybe dusk to dawn sensors;
- Parking sensors or detectors, but they will probably be in each parking spot;
- Access doors, maintenance features, perhaps an underground vault with more equipment, and whatever is coming out next.
Cities that I have seen are not doing as much because, quite frankly, they don’t have the money. They all want to be smart cities, but they don’t want to pay for it. It’s like they want to be 5G cities, but it really isn’t up to them, is it?
So, each smart pole has to be planned out properly. You can still deploy them with the hopes that someone will install their equipment in them. It makes sense so that the carriers will not go back and replace them in the future. All I am saying is that it pays to plan ahead. Growth will happen, but make an educated guess or a plan. Who will expand? Where will they do it? I am working on several projects for smart poles, they all run into these issues. I thought it might help you deploy.
Be smart, be safe, and pay attention!
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