Fifth Generation, or “5G,” cellular service is the newest advancement in cellular technology. It requires new transmission towers “small cells” that differ from the large-scale macro towers and the 74 existing fifteen foot 4G towers in the Vieux Carré.

The four major mobile carriers, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, currently roll in additional temporary cell towers into the French Quarter during heavy attendance events like French Quarter Fest, and Mardi Gras to keep up with wireless demand. Carriers point to the need for these permanent 5G towers to replace the mobile units and ensure quality service year round. Notably, 5G waves do not penetrate walls, and will not service residents or businesses that operate indoors. This technology is designed for open air wireless usage only.

The carriers have proposed installing new 35 to 40 foot 5G cell towers within the French Quarter boundaries. AT&T and Verizon have submitted applications to the City, while T-Mobile and Sprint (merged) have discussed plans for applying. For full coverage in the French Quarter that could mean 200 towers, or a pole at nearly every intersection as they need to be located within 300 feet of each other in an unobstructed line of sight to be effective. 5G poles can incorporate 4G antennas, but they also will include two cabinets measuring 5 feet tall and 2 feet wide and deep to house the updated equipment. Alternatives resembling historic lamp posts are being explored by the City.

In September 2018 “the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) restricted cities’ ability to regulate 5G infrastructure. Under the new rules, local governments face tight deadlines to approve or reject the installation of this new cellular equipment. The rules also put limits on how much money cities can charge wireless firms for the privilege of putting hardware in public rights of way.”

“The new FCC rules set a clock of 60 to 90 days for local officials to approve or reject installation requests from wireless carriers…The FCC also put limits on how much city officials can charge to deploy 5G cells, ordering that all fees must be based on costs. Companies like AT&T have complained that certain cities have assessed annual fees of up to $8,000 per 5G attachment.”

Additionally, the FCC had issued an order in March 2018 eliminating environmental and historic preservation review of the 5G cell towers. On August 9, 2019, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on an appeal brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and several Native American Tribes that the FCC had failed to adequately address possible harms of its deregulation efforts and the benefits of environmental and historic preservation review. This ruling implies that the FCC does not have the authority to dismiss the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act or the National Environmental Protection Act. A challenge by dozens of cities and counties to a Federal Communications Commission is in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and is still pending.

We, along with several other French Quarter groups, are organizing a public meeting in the next couple of weeks for the City to present more information about the proposed 5G small cell towers. Please watch your inbox for details on that gathering.