AT&T is accelerating the deployment of its 5G network by integrating small cells into existing streetlights to reduce costs and speed installation. The company said that in some cases, a small cell can be deployed in as little as 15 minutes.

In a blog post, Gordon Mansfield, VP of mobility access & architecture at AT&T, said that AT&T tested prototypes of these streetlight-powered small cells last year and now the company is in the process of field testing and commercially deploying the units in several cities. An AT&T spokeswoman declined to reveal the specific cities but said that they were selected “because of need and because they have government and local utility and lighting providers with procedures and practices in place that make the deployment faster.”

Mansfield said that one of the biggest challenges in deploying new network infrastructure is the time it takes to acquire sites, engineer designs and secure permits, noting that it can often take between 12 to 18 months to get a new site installed.

By incorporating 5G radios into streetlights operators can significantly reduce that time. Streetlights already have electricity and they are often in close proximity to fiber for backhaul. Plus, they are the perfect height for a small cell because they are typically 8 to 10 meters high and they are spaced about 50 meters apart. In addition, most streetlights have a common electric socket, known as the ANSI C136 (or NEMA) socket.

About three years ago Mansfield said he connected with smart solutions startup Ubicquia and asked the company about the possibility of streetlight-powered small cells. Ubicquia partnered with Ericsson and the two companies develop the Ericsson Street Radio 4402, a small cell that can be plugged into existing streetlights with a NEMA socket. The device sits just above the streetlight shield and next to the light so it blends into the existing infrastructure. The radio supports low- or mid-band 5G, with a fully integrated 4×4 MIMO antenna system.

Mansfield added that the 5G streetlight-powered small cells are equipped with smart sensors that can detect when a streetlight isn’t working because it was damaged in a storm or due to a blackout.  “This helps us in quickly assessing damage and dispatching crews for repairs or alerting the power provider of an issue,” he said.

Another appealing aspect of the Ericsson Street Radio is that during its deployment existing bulbs on light poles can be replaced with LED lights to reduce power consumption and contribute to sustainability goals.

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