By Scott Etkin
On Tuesday night, the Community Board 7 Land Use Committee held an informational session about the new, public 5G towers that are being deployed around the city. While no towers are expected to be installed in the CB7 district for now, these 30-foot structures have sparked curiosity — and concern — in the neighborhood about what they are, how they work, and what they emit.
Nick Colvin, chief executive officer of CityBridge — the private-public partnership with the City of New York that has the contract for installing and maintaining the 5G towers through 2030 — began by reviewing the LinkNYC program, which was launched in 2014 under the Bill de Blasio administration. Its goal was to close the “digital divide” — the lack of access to broadband among low-income New Yorkers — by replacing defunct payphone booths with free, public WiFi kiosks. Over the years, CityBridge has installed 2,000 kiosks, making them ubiquitous enough that they are no longer noteworthy.
CityBridge’s new 5G towers, however, are getting people’s attention.
Colvin explained that the 5G towers are intended to fulfill the program’s original mission: closing the digital divide with the latest technology. This is an essential service given how reliant we are on internet connectivity and cell service in everyday life. “Demand for cellular data is increasing 20% year over year,” he said.
The 5G towers are 32 feet tall, which is significantly bigger than the original LinkNYC WiFi kiosks, but smaller than 5G towers that have been deployed in other cities, which tend to be 40 to 50 feet tall. They need to be out in the open – as opposed to positioned on a rooftop or buried underground – because the antenna needs “direct line of sight” to the devices in order to make the connection. (5G technology carries more data but across a shorter distance than 4G.)
CityBridge has two versions of the tower – one with digital display screens and one without. So far, they have deployed towers without screens due to supply chain issues.
Each structure has five transmission bays to house the telecoms equipment. This is enough space in the tower to support signals from multiple carriers (for example, AT&T and T-Mobile) and accommodate technology upgrades, making them “future proof.”
CityBridge also installs antennas on top of existing light poles, however, these have less space for equipment, which make them unable to support multiple carriers simultaneously.
Where the towers are installed depends on many factors. The LinkNYC program prioritizes “digital deserts,” meaning areas with spotty network service and where less fiber optic cable has been laid. For this reason, “90% of deployments will be above 96th Street and in the outer boroughs,” said Colvin.
CityBridge’s contract with NYC mandates a minimum of 4,000 installations and a maximum of 7,500. These numbers include the 2,000 WiFi kiosks that have already been installed. So, at least 2,000 5G towers will be installed though the end of 2026, according to the contract.
The siting process begins with CityBridge fielding requests from carriers about where to install new towers. They then submit these proposals to the NYC Office of Technology, which vets the plan. If given approval to move forward, CityBridge must give 60 days notice to the borough president and the local community board. While community board votes are advisory only (in this and all matters), Colvin said sites have already been moved or dropped based on community feedback. “You know your neighborhood better than we do,” he said.
A new tower must meet many detailed requirements, such as its placement relative to the closest building and other infrastructure on a block. There can be no more than one Link5G per block and they must be at least 200 feet apart. In a historic district, the tower is subject to approval by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Once a tower is installed, CityBridge is responsible for maintaining and cleaning it. Colvin said that all structures are monitored remotely and required to be visited for a site inspection once a week.
A topic not addressed in depth on the call was health concerns about 5G technology. This will be the focus of a subsequent Land Use Committee meeting in June. Speaking briefly on the matter, Mr. Colvin said that there has been a lot of misinformation about 5G, and studies that have been cited by critics are not as conclusive as they may seem. He added that the technology has been approved by the FDA and FCC, which have reviewed all the studies over the course of 10 years about cellular radiation.
While Colvin reiterated that there are no plans to install a 5G tower in CB7, he expects there will eventually be some in every district. It is hard to guess how many might be installed, because CityBridge’s proposals follow “carrier need, especially in Manhattan,” he said. There is “no deploying sites ‘just because.’”