Charleston has most of the pieces it would need to get a new wireless network downtown, to start building a grid of small transmitters on the tops of telephone poles and light posts.
A national wireless infrastructure firm is eager to start laying fiber optic cables and installing miniature antennas. A major cellphone provider is lined up to use its network. The state has given the go-ahead to start digging up roads.
It’s still going to be a while. There’s a real estate dispute to hash out first.
On one side is the network builder, Crown Castle International, a Houston-based company that says it owns more of the guts of America’s wireless infrastructure than any other business. On the other is the city of Charleston, which isn’t ready for lots of antennas in its historic downtown.
The fight has been brewing for years, but it’s now shifted to federal court. The case appears to be picking up speed: Expert witnesses have been hired, depositions taken. And more details of Crown Castle’s plans have trickled out.
Like this detail, disclosed last month: The network Crown Castle is hoping to build downtown would be used by Verizon Wireless.
Charleston has held those plans at bay for years. Crown Castle says it first approached the city about installing cables and transmitters in late 2014.
In court papers, it details a years-long effort to get permission to build that was hamstrung by what it describes as the city’s “refusal to act.” The city needs to bless Crown Castle’s access to public rights of way and give it permission to put equipment on its lampposts.
By last summer, it was told to keep waiting. City officials told the company that Charleston was planning to commission a master plan to improve its broadband infrastructure and clear up its regulations. Without new ordinances on the books, the city wasn’t ready to move forward.
So Crown Castle sued, essentially forcing the issue. The case is still pending nine months later.
The city says it’s trying to draw up standards for small transmitters, which would be new technology for Charleston. And it says it’s concerned about how they would blend into the city’s historic core.
Plans floated by Crown Castle call for 22 miles of fiber cable across the peninsula and 32 transmitters scattered south of Cannon Street — from the hospital district to the neighborhoods along the Battery.
“The city must take into account the impact of small cell nodes on residents, the aesthetics and safety of the equipment involved as well as the rights of other potential applicants who like Crown Castle also want to have a presence in our unique city,” city attorney Susan Herdina said in an email.
The idea of installing a grid of small antennas isn’t trivial: It’s expected to form the backbone of wireless service in the future — a 5G, or fifth-generation, network. The idea is that many little transmitters can pump out faster speeds and produce better coverage than a handful of massive towers.
Even so, those antennas are still relatively scarce, and most cell providers are at least a year or two from rolling out 5G coverage.