In the Smart Dublin office, overlooking the Liffey on Custom House Quay, what looks like a truncated loudspeaker is attached to a street lamp.

It’s a prototype of a small cell, a piece of equipment used to carry a 5G signal, also known as fifth-generation broadband, the wireless network that is faster than 4G, with less lag time, and able to host hundreds more devices per network.

Like 4G, 5G relies on the tall cell towers to get online. But with 5G, the radio waves don’t travel so far and need help to move along.

That’s where the small cells come in. If you’re eagle-eyed enough, you might have spotted some of them in the Docklands.

There are 25 deployed in the neighbourhood at the moment, on top of traffic lights and sticking out of street lights, said Jamie Cudden, the lead for Smart Dublin for Dublin City Council, on Monday.

Telecommunication companies say they’ll be ubiquitous in the future. Before that, though, cities need to work out how to deploy the nuts and bolts of infrastructure.

“[W]hen 5G gets close to what 4G is today it will need an awful lot more infrastructure to support it,” says Cudden.

Smart Dublin – a project of the four Dublin councils to link in with smart-technology providers so they can better measure and analyse the city’s information flows – is working out how to do that through its Smart Docklands trial.

Because 5G requires a dense web of equipment in the public realm, there’s a danger of it being unsightly in cityscapes as more mobile providers jump on board.

A prototype of a small cell. Photo by Sean Finnan.

A Live Test Bed

In 2018, the council teamed up with global 5G provider Dense Air, and the CONNECT Centre at Trinity College Dublin, to trial what it calls a “neutral host small cell network” in the city.

A neutral host “would reduce the need to possess the myriad small cell requests for the operators”, cut down on the visual impact of 5G infrastructure, and improve the economics for operators, says Dense Air in documents released through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Docklands is now a test bed to see how 5G could potentially be rolled out in the future, says Cudden.

The idea is “that we could build a network in the Docklands and just understand what the technology looks like, how these networks are built and what needs to happen”, he says.

Because three operators can use one neutral host, it stops clutter on lamposts and streetlights, he says. In some places, each mobile operator has its own equipment on street infrastructure, which can be ugly and overwhelming.

It also means streets don’t have to be constantly dug up to put in yet another cell network, says Cudden.

Prof. Rob Kitchin, principal investigator of the Programmable City project at Maynooth University, is looking at how the city interacts with software and data.

With 5G, “The problem is the density [the close web of small cells] and then one of the other problems is that you have to layer it on to existing infrastructure,” he says.

“There’s weight issues. You can’t drill holes in them because otherwise you break the guarantee with the manufacturer and all this kind of stuff,” he says.

Then there’s the power issues. Power comes from the ESB, not the council. “You have to have a way of metering it to bill. It’s not straightforward, some of this stuff,” he says.

Public or Private Infrastructure?

Much of the small cell infrastructure is using public infrastructure maintained by the council to host equipment provided by a private company.

This is something Dense Air recognises: “The assets of a city are becoming increasingly valuable as they are required for the deployment of technology to better connect and understand our city.”

Is there an issue here that private companies are piggybacking off of public infrastructure?

“You could say that about anything,” says Kitchin. “You could say that about the privatisation of buses. I mean that’s been going on for a long time, the neoliberalisation or privatisation of public service.”

There’s a particular reason why this argument is emerging from the United States, says Cudden.

There, the Federal Communications Commission – the government agency in charge of communications – announced plans with the White House to fast-track the deployment of 5G and to set standard pricing.

There was criticism that these changes were way too favourable favourable towards industry, said Cudden. “We wouldn’t like to see a similar type of directive in Ireland.”

The benefit, Cudden says, of the neutral-host model is that the local authority controls the infrastructure and how it looks.

It also gets some funds back into the city’s coffers, he says, through leasing agreements between Dense Air and the council, as well as from mobile operators that use the equipment in the future.

That’s something they’re looking into more. “Our ambition would be to explore that model with the market next year,” says Cudden.

The test is going to run into the second half of next year, and “then we’re going to kick off with market consultation process to see how we could promote the idea of neutral host”, he said.

Health Risks

The small cells on traffic lights stick out more than on street lights, as the poles are extended to attach the cell at a higher point.

The ten cells in poles from Westland Row to Connolly Junction are crowned with CCTV cameras. (Those were already there.)

For some, there are fears that due to the density of the 5G network, people will be exposed to more radiation.

Cudden says he acknowledges that some people have health concerns about this. They’re working closely with the Department of Communications and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), getting advice on these risks, he says.

They’re following international guidance too, he says. “We’re taking all the advice and the guidance from the people that know.”

According to a spokesperson for the EPA, the World Health Organisation and other public-health agencies have said “that there is no scientific evidence to support any adverse health effects to individuals exposed below the international exposure levels set for members of the public”.

However, the EPA are part-funding research through the WHO on the health effects of radio frequencies. “This assessment includes the frequencies associated with 5G,” the spokesperson said.

If the advice around health impacts changes, Cudden says, they will reconsider the roll-out.

Out in the City

Cudden says not all of 5G’s possibilities have yet been imagined. “Good connectivity is a precondition to good economic activity, as we know,” he says.

There are so many opportunities – with augmented reality, and virtual reality, he says. “We want the city to be at the forefront.”

Opportunities could encompass everything from sensors on ring buoys so that they can be tracked, to drones in emergencies, says Cudden.

“If we’re to see things like autonomous vehicles that need instant connection or connected drones or things that help the fire brigade with first responders, you need that quality of service,” says Cudden.

The council would, if it increases the capacity of the telecommunications network, be able to deal with a pervasive internet of things, says Kitchin.

“If they start to stick sensors on all types of infrastructure they have to be able to cope with that,” says Kitchin.

Sean Finnan is a freelance journalist. You can reach him at

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