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Dayton leaders criticize wireless companies for 5G buildout, small cell sites

By Cornelius Frolik, Dayton Daily News

Wireless carriers are installing “small cell” towers in Dayton to support 5G and faster internet speeds, but city leaders say they are very troubled that Black neighborhoods on the west side largely have been left out.

Most of the proposed small cell antennas are concentrated in downtown, and a few dozen towers are expected to go up in east and southeast Dayton, according to city data.

But towers are scarce west of the river, and the company that has the most proposed towers in the city, Verizon, hasn’t submitted an application for even one on the west side, city data from end of 2020 show.

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley said the city will highlight wireless companies’ lack of investment in minority-dense neighborhoods until they commit to making upgrades.

Small cell towers are small radio equipment and antennas that can be placed on streetlights, poles, the sides of buildings and elsewhere to support sending larger quantities of data at faster speeds, according to CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry and companies.

Small cell towers will help carriers upgrade their wireless networks to 5G to provide super-fast Internet and download speeds.

In May 2016, the city of Dayton received its first-ever request for a small cell tower, and since then, more than 100 towers have been proposed inside municipal boundaries, according to a map of the sites as of the end of 2020.

But only about 18 towers have been proposed west of the river. AT&T has the most proposed small cell sites on the west side (10), while Verizon has none, city data show.

“Our investment decisions are based on the coverage and capacity needs of our network and demand for our services. We’ve invested more than $100 million in our Dayton wireless and wired networks from 2017-2019. These investments boost reliability, coverage, speed and overall performance for residents and businesses. They also improve critical services that support public safety and first responders. Small cells are used to ease network congestion in high traffic areas,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement.

Small cell towers complement large cell towers, adding capacity to high-traffic areas and extending coverage to hard-to-reach locations and indoor spaces, said David Escobar, engineer with the city of Dayton.

Small cell towers should improve connectivity, support economic development and help with “smart city” initiatives, Escobar said.

Some citizens have criticized how the towers look and how they impact neighborhood aesthetics.

5G build out has been concentrated downtown, and carriers choose the tower sites and the city isn’t involved in selecting locations, Escobar said.

“They like to do the urban dense areas first, and then they spider-web out from there,” he said. “Corporations will put nice commercials on TV, but when the rubber hits the road around equity, they are not putting the infrastructure where the African American community lives,” she said. “And so therefore we have to call them out on it.”

Verizon spokesman Chris Serico said the company is committed to making significant investment to expand its coverage in Dayton and elsewhere.

“We have worked over a significant period of time with each city to develop and engineer the best possible network given each local community’s needs,” he said.

Verizon approached the city to discuss building out its 5G network in late 2019, and the company started submitting applications for small cell sites in February 2020, city officials say.

Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein said she and other city administrators met with company representatives and told them their 5G infrastructure plan was completely unacceptable.

Dickstein said city staff also have communicated with representatives from AT&T and other companies that also gave “disheartening” and “infuriating” answers about why they do no plan to put towers in some areas.

“We have been working on this issue for years and obviously have gotten nowhere,” she said.

Mayor Whaley said the city needs to hold these companies accountable and draw attention to their refusal to invest in areas where people of color live.

“We cannot be silent about that ... I think we do have the ability to shame for equity in our community,” Whaley said.

Serico, the Verizon spokesperson, said the company consistently invests in its network to offer customers a quality experience and reliability they expect and deserve.

“Our ongoing network investment is critical to providing reliable connectivity for our subscribers — especially important during this time when more people are working or learning from home,” he said. “Small cells in Dayton strengthen our coverage and capacity, resulting in faster speeds and more reliable connections.”

Serico said Verizon on Wednesday announced on it will expand digital access as part of its Citizen Verizon responsible-business initiative.

“We understand the importance of connections in today’s world, and we will continue to support programs that knock down the barriers to universal, affordable broadband,” the company said.

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