5G Pittsburgh

By Karen Rohrkemper, Vice President, Engineering & Operations, Central Region, Crown Castle

Karen Rohrkemper
Karen Rohrkemper

The next generation of wireless connectivity will transform the way we live, work and play and also impact virtually every industry, from education to health care, and manufacturing to farming. Just 10 years ago, we couldn’t have imagined everything we can do with connected devices today. Likewise, the decade ahead will present us with countless possibilities given the speed, latency and capacity available with 5G.  

Pennsylvania has many industries that could dramatically benefit from 5G technology and everything that 5G will enable. The growth resulting from the introduction of 5G in Pennsylvania will broadly improve the Commonwealth’s economic sustainability and output through autonomous vehicles, telemedicine and health care, public safety, agriculture, education, hospitality and tourism, and advanced manufacturing.

But – what will it take to make 5G possible? First, 5G is going to require infrastructure—a network of towers, small cells and fiber that work together to meet the unprecedented increasing demand for wireless connectivity. Earlier in this edition of TEQ, small cells were discussed: the technology which adds greater wireless capacity to the existing coverage provided by towers. While small cells are critical to 5G, the underpinning fiber that is attached to each small cell serves as the lifeblood for 5G.  

When thinking about wireless connectivity, it’s important to note that the only thing that’s wireless is a device’s connection to a tower or small cell. Using pulses of light, fiber optic cables—what we call “fiber”—move data and voice at the speed of light and have the capacity to literally connect communities that are continents apart. Fiber is the fastest and most efficient way to transmit wired or wireless data through both the public internet and private intranets. The fact that businesses, hospitals, governments, school systems, universities, libraries and other enterprises all depend on resilient and reliable connectivity means we must think of fiber in the same way we think of power lines: essential to modern life.     

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Fiber is a critical component of 5G and it’s crucial that fiber is deployed as quickly as possible. Crown Castle currently maintains more than 75,000 route miles of fiber across the country and 330 miles in the City of Pittsburgh. That fiber supports approximately 70,000 small cell nodes nationally and 40 small cells in the City of Pittsburgh. Projections suggest that 300,000 small cells must be deployed in the next three to four years to support the nationwide rollout of 5G.  That’s roughly double the number of macro towers built over the past 30 years. Deploying this scale of infrastructure requires cooperation between all levels of government and private and public entities.     

The fiber and small cell deployment process takes time—on average between 18 and 24 months for each installation from start to finish. This is because every community has its own permitting requirements and aesthetic needs.  We are always looking for ways to collaborate with both community officials and our customers to streamline and speed up the process while also minimizing interruption to the daily lives of residents and maintaining the community’s character. One such solution is microtrenching. With less interruption to traffic and the lives of residents, microtrenching enables us to install fiber more quickly—typically in one day. Microtrenching involves digging a narrow trench that is one-to-two inches wide and up to two feet deep. These trenches can then hold multiple conduits for fiber. When possible, we work with municipalities to utilize microtrenching to lay fiber. The microtrenching process will allow us to quickly lay fiber everywhere it’s needed so that communities are always connected.      

Increased security, speed and capacity are just the beginning of what fiber technology will ultimately bring to our schools, businesses and communities at large. Fiber will serve as the central nervous system for Smart Community technologies such as public safety applications and countless other innovations that will make our communities stronger, safer and more efficient. In fact, 80% of 911 calls are made from a wireless device, making reliable wireless service more important than ever. Wireless connectivity has become the fourth utility in today’s society.    

Winning the race to 5G in each community is largely dependent on our federal, state and local government leaders prioritizing universal deployment of small cells and fiber today, so that the United States, Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh remain the innovation leaders of tomorrow.