NYC’s massive Link5G towers aren’t actually providing 5G (yet)

The vast majority of the massive, metallic towers the city commissioned to help low-income neighborhoods access high-speed 5G internet still lack cell signal equipment — more than two years after hundreds of the structures began sprouting across the five boroughs.

Just two of the nearly 200 Link5G towers installed by tech firm CityBridge since 2022 have been fitted with 5G equipment, company officials said. Delayed installations and cooling enthusiasm around 5G technology have discouraged carriers like Verizon from using the towers to build out their networks, experts say. The firm only has an agreement with a single telecommunications carrier to deliver high-speed internet, stymieing its efforts to boost mobile connectivity citywide.

The 32-foot-tall structures, which resemble giant tampon applicators emerging from the sidewalk, offer the same services as the LinkNYC electronic billboards that popped up around the city in 2016. Those were also installed by CityBridge. Both the original Link kiosks and the 5G towers provide free limited-range Wi-Fi, charging outlets and a tablet to connect users to city services. Data shared by the company shows that 16 million people have used the internet at kiosks since 2016, and the attached tablets are used to call for city services thousands of times each month.

But unlike the LinkNYC kiosks, each new tower is topped with a 12-foot-tall cylindrical mesh chamber containing five empty shelves reserved for companies like Verizon and T-Mobile to store the equipment they use to transmit high-speed 5G internet service to paying customers.

CityBridge officials concede the 5G expansion’s rollout has been slow, mirroring a similar experience the company had with the kiosk installation nearly a decade ago.

Margaux Knee, chief administrative officer for the LinkNYC program, noted that the towers still meet other needs, like serving as Wi-Fi hotspots.

“While the cellular service is built out — which is taking longer than we wanted, but it is happening — all the other services are still existing as well,” she said.

The city’s Office of Technology and Innovation once touted the hulking structures as crucial tools “to bridge the digital divide” in “neighborhoods that will most benefit from free, high-speed internet, mobile broadband, and fiber infrastructure.” In addition to free Wi-Fi, the towers would also boost cell networks for paying customers in neighborhoods that cell companies would otherwise neglect in favor of wealthier sections of Manhattan, the agency previously said.

The lack of access to reliable high-speed internet in New York City’s lowest-income communities came to a head during the pandemic, as the city’s school system scrambled to get roughly 1 million students online for remote education. About 40% of all households lacked either mobile or at-home broadband access in 2020, according to the city’s Internet Master Plan released that year.

The internet inequities still persist. Nearly 1 million New York City households lost access to key federal broadband subsidies last month that helped pay for services.

So far, though, major carriers aren’t using the towers.

Spectrum parent company Charter Communications, and Altice, which owns Optimum, both told Gothamist that they’re not renting space in Link5G smart poles.

“Spectrum has no equipment in the LinkNYC 5G towers and utilizes other technology to provide its mobile service to New Yorkers,” said Charter Communications spokesperson Don Kaplan.

Spokespeople for T-Mobile and Verizon declined to comment on whether they are renting space or plan to rent space in the Link5G kiosks.

The leasing delays for the new Link5G towers are occurring at the same time as telecom companies are scaling back their 5G expansion plans, meaning there’s no guarantee carriers will start renting out the towers, according to industry experts. The fifth-generation mobile network offers faster speeds, but requires a denser network of signal boosters.

“[Carriers] pretty quickly discovered there wasn’t much more revenue to be had,” said computer engineer Henning Schulzrinne, a professor of engineering and computer science at Columbia University and a former top official at the Federal Communications Commission. “The technology has taken a different turn for economic reasons than has been anticipated.”

He said the Link5G program’s slow rollout corresponds with an industry-wide retreat from 5G installation. The firm Crown Castle, one of the nation’s largest wireless internet infrastructure developers, recently announced it was scrapping thousands of 5G signal boosters it had planned to install nationwide.

Schulzrinne questioned why CityBridge would erect hundreds of towers without an agreement in place with at least one company to rent them out.

“Building those on spec seems kind of pointless, or risky at least,” he said. “Why would you not have tenants in place before you start breaking ground on one of these devices, especially since they’re not particularly popular?”

Whether telecom companies start using the towers depends on how much CityBridge plans to charge them, said Alphonso Jenkins Jr., a former deputy commissioner for telecom planning at the Department of Information Technology and Communications, which has since been subsumed by the Office of Technology and Innovation.

“Operators have other choices at a lower cost,” like rooftops and billboards, Jenkins said.

CityBridge officials say they anticipate signing agreements with an additional telecom company “very soon,” with others to eventually follow. Executives previously told the City Council they intended to start renting space to carriers by the end of 2023.

Knee declined to say which telecom company had signed on, which company was testing its equipment in the two Link5G towers, how much the carriers are paying, or where the two active structures are located.

Knee blamed leasing delays on lengthy bureaucratic rules. She said that the towers can be used to store equipment for future technology for the ever-evolving telecommunications industry if carriers continue to retreat from 5G.

And while preservationists and community groups have panned the ominous-looking structures, a survey commissioned by CityBridge found more than three-quarters of New Yorkers say they would support “smart poles” in their neighborhoods.

Gothamist visited two Link5G towers in the Bronx’s Morris Heights neighborhood on Monday. The new towers are concentrated in the outer boroughs and north of 96th Street in Manhattan in an attempt to boost connectivity in neighborhoods with limited internet access. Residents there gave the structures mixed reviews.

Outside a five-story apartment building on Featherbed Lane, neighbors and delivery workers chatted around a tower with a shattered tablet screen. Delivery workers sat on their mopeds, connected to the free Wi-Fi.

But the original, much smaller LinkNYC kiosks provide the same services, said Angel Medina, an investigator for a law firm.

Medina, 52, called the towers a “waste of space.”

“It’s blocking some of these people’s views now,” Medina said. “They’re paying high rent as it is now and you just put a tower up that is useless.”

A few blocks away, Genaro Solis, 51, had a different perspective.

Solis stood beside a tower, shaded by two nearby trees, and charged his cellphone. He said he was also using the free Wi-Fi to log into Facebook and message his daughter.

“I don’t have to go home and charge my phone, and it’s beneficial for me because I can plug in wherever I’m at,” Solis said.

When asked about the empty 5G cabinet atop of the structure, he said he was willing to be patient.

“I believe it will take a little bit of time before [carriers] can actually put their devices up there,” Solis said. “It takes patience. It takes money to take care of these. And my opinion is, I like them. I actually love them.”

The lack of agreements is the latest setback for CityBridge, a multimillion-dollar group of companies that includes the firms Boldyn Networks and Intersection.

The consortium’s work on the 5G infrastructure comes at no cost to the city. Instead, the company pays the city a share of its revenue, generated through advertising, each year, according to their franchise agreement.

CityBridge faced bankruptcy in 2019 and fell well short of the escalating annual revenue mandates spelled out in the first LinkNYC contract in 2014. The company and the city revised the agreement in 2021 so that CityBridge owes much smaller annual sums of $3 million, or 8% of gross revenue, whichever is higher.

Knee said the company will be able to pay its annual dues to the city even without the added rental income from telecom companies.

Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez, who chairs the City Council’s technology committee, called the revelation that the 5G towers aren’t yet providing 5G coverage “disappointing.”

“Every day that goes by is another day that a New Yorker is without equitable access,” Gutiérrez said in a statement. “I want to see fulfillment of all of CityBridge’s commitments.”

Meanwhile, the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation is standing by the company. Agency spokesperson Ray Legendre said they expect the Link5G towers to attract carriers willing to rent space for 5G equipment.

“New York City’s deployment of diverse broadband infrastructure is vital to ensure we have the capacity to meet New Yorkers’ needs and to bridge the digital divide in our historically under-connected communities,” Legendre said.

The Link5G business model also has its share of defenders among industry experts.

Theodore Rappaport, a professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and a pioneer in 5G expansion, said carriers want to see the infrastructure actually get built before they sign on to rent space inside.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said.

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