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How Forsyth County is getting ready for 5G
An antenna for 5G wireless network sits atop a pole in downtown Cumming off Atlanta Road. The technology is expected to deliver faster and greater connectivity but will require more “small-cell” towers - photo by Jim Dean

New small-cell towers for 5G technology are starting to pop up across the country, including around Forsyth County and the city of Cumming.

- photo by Jim Dean

Scott Evans, senior technology manager for the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, said 5G, named for being the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications, is increasing its potential footprint beyond major cities.

“Where we are right now, 5G is just kind of coming into the marketplace in select locations. It hasn't gone mainstream yet,” he said. “The technology backbone isn’t completely there. What you're hearing about in relationship to 5G is the ramp up to getting us ready for 5G, which is the small-cells.”

The small-cell technology towers have begun popping up in the area. The technology involves smaller radio equipment and antennas that are placed closer together than larger mobile phone network antennas.

Jon Heard, director of Cumming Utilities, said there are three small-cell towers currently in the city of Cumming and the new technology came with some challenges.

First, the city had to find a way to charge owners of the towers fees similar to other utilities, funds that are earmarked to maintain the city’s right-of-way. While services like cable or traditional phones had franchise fees that were paid for by customers, a new way was needed for a service that does not have a definite number of customers and whose users may just be passing through town.

Heard said such rules are currently being considered at the state level.

There was also discussion in the city about where the new towers would go and how they would look, which the city has more power over.

“No one in the city is going to be pleased with an ugly pole. So, we are able to dictate what the poll looks like, if they intend to install a pole, the height, the color, the type of material,” Heard said. “The other option that they have is to co-locate on existing poles. For example, a Georgia Power pole or a Sawnee Electric pole. So in both cases, we would be looking at what the technology would look like that was being installed on the existing pole.”

Evans said the towers deal with phone data rather than calls and will be so much faster than what is currently available. He said each new generation of the technology is usually about 100 times faster than its predecessor.

“I was actually in a conference a couple of weeks ago and a guy said, ‘In 3G, if you try to download a movie to watch on a plane as you were going to fly to Australia, which is about a 19-hour flight, under 3G, you could start the movie, get on the plane, fly to Australia and by the time you got there, you would be ready to watch the movie,” Evans said. “In 4G, which is what we have right now, it takes about anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes to download a movie if you're going to watch it on your laptop. In 5G, it's about five seconds.”

The technology would also shrink the latency, or the time it takes, of email and downloads.

In recent years, mobile technology has expanded from beyond just phones and into devices like cars, homes and even medical equipment, which is referred to as the internet of things. Using a Fitbit as an example, Evans said the data currently flows from the device to his phone, but that would change with the new technology.

“The small cells are a way of getting a lot of that data off of the phone system to where these internet of things devices can speak directly to the small antennas and take the traffic off the phones,” Evans said. “Not only are we using a lot of devices, but imagine if 15 people were trying to download a movie at the same time. Movies and gaming are what suck up a lot of bandwidth.”

While personal uses are a big point, the technology has business applications as well. Evans said as companies ranging from farms to hospitals, are using more and more devices with internet access and as they become more popular and more advanced, the quicker they need to be.

One example is autonomous vehicles, which would largely require 5G technology to become commonplace.

“Some of this data will have people's lives in its control, like the autonomous car or the cars that talk to each other,” he said. “They're running trucks across the Arizona desert that they're autonomous trucks. If a deer runs out in front of it, the latency on that has to be almost indescribable. It's got to be instantaneous.”

Evans said his role with the Chamber is to attract more technology-based business and having 5G would make Forsyth County an attractive spot for those companies.

“It is a huge economic development tool for us to have the 5G infrastructure in place if we're going to make technology a high-priority economic development target,” he said.