Governors Island, with 172 acres of land just off the Manhattan shoreline, is the perfect test bed for 5G. This former Coast Guard military base now serves as a national park, and it draws in more than 800,000 visitors annually.
In June 2018, Fiberless Networks of Quincy, MA was announced as the winner of the Governors Island Connectivity Challenge. On July 1, 2018, free, high-speed public Wi-Fi was installed on the island to serve as a test case for advancing broadband, Wi-Fi, and 5G cell service throughout NYC.
SEE: Photos: NYC's Governors Island past and present (TechRepublic)
Michael Samuelian, president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island, said, "We very much view ourselves as a test phase for how to kind of cheaply and easily deploy future 5G technologies. And being an island, as you probably know, we were very, very keen on having a more resilient kind of backup to our data line, so we already are hard-wired through the battery tunnel, but it was very important for us to have a completely wireless system."
It was approriate that Governors Island serve as a 5G test bed because it is the location of previous firsts, including Wilbur Wright's first public flight.
Governors Island sits about halfway between Lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn. It has approximately 1.4 million square feet of historic buildings, ranging from residential housing to military barracks.
SEE: 5G technology: A business leader's guide (Tech Pro Research)
5G in a smart city
It's important to test and deploy 5G, because a smart city needs 5G to eliminate lag in data delivery from sensors around a city. Smart devices can talk back and forth with each other in real time in a 5G environment; this paves the way for autonomous vehicles, better public safety response times, and more.
"I'm a big believer that the smart city is not just about putting sensors on everything, but actually making the human experience better," Samuelian said. "So, one of the things that we think about in terms of how 5G could actually help people is: How can it help them navigate the island? How could it optimize our use of infrastructure? How could it optimize the use of energy? How could we begin to measure the amount of air pollution, water quality, even density of people?"
"I do actually hope that if there's anything that can be gleaned from this experiment, it is that cities and towns should try to do what we did and be much more flexible in terms of where you are able to put this technology, because it's not always going to be perfect, like it should be on every light pole or it should be on every building or it should be connected to every tree or bridge. So, we're able to be this kind of test case for how technology can be easily and cheaply deployed in a smart way," he said.
How the 5G network was installed
Ben Ockers, chief deployment officer for Fiberless Networks, explained the 5G infrastructure and mesh network his company installed on the island. "For redundancy purposes, we are utilizing millimeter waves. And those circuits have a capacity that are scalable up to 10 gigabits per second, each one of them. And we actually utilize the Coast Guard towers on the island, which are the highest point, for the receivers for that circuit. Then, in the Coast Guard shelter below the tower, we set up our network headend, which basically is a small ISP extension on the island."
"So now, we had high-speed internet access, or high-speed internet circuits to the island that we could utilize. So from there, we had to then decide where we were going to put access points, because they gave us specific areas to cover. The goal of this first phase wasn't for ubiquitous coverage, it was for specific areas. Then we had to get circuits out to those particular areas in order that we could put Wi-Fi access points out there," he said.
SEE: 5G smartphones: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)
Ockers added, "One of the main things that we didn't want to do is just create a mesh network, where we put up access points, and we just have access points connect to access points, because it would never match the requirements of capacity that we had as part of the challenge requirements. So we actually didn't use mesh—we actually installed wireless circuits using a different frequency and millimeter wave to specific areas around the island. Then we connected Wi-Fi access points to the end of those."
Facing challenges during installation of the 5G network
There were challenges to be overcome in order to install 5G on Governors Island.
The winter environment can be harsh, so ruggedized equipment had to be used, as well as enclosures designed specifically to protect equipment. There were also issues with line-of-sight situations due to the trees on the island.
There was also the potential for interference from Manhattan and Brooklyn.
"If you're familiar with Wi-Fi frequencies, there really aren't that many channels to use in 2.4 gigahertz. Even though everybody's router says 11 channels, there's really only three non-overlapping," Ockers said.
"And even though, as a client, when I'm on the island, from my phone I don't see networks in Manhattan, but my access point is much stronger, and the antennas are much stronger. So if I put my access points up high on the island, they get interference from Brooklyn and from Manhattan. So one of the challenges was finding good mounting locations to put these access points that would give us good range, but it would also have some blockage from the mainland," Ockers said.
Another concern was working with the historic buildings and not mounting equipment directly on the brick. "You can mount on the wood trim, because the wood is going to rot over time and get replaced anyway. But you can't drill into the brick. So there was a lot of situations where we needed to utilize chimneys, to get some height, but then use the chimney also as a way to block signals," Ockers said.
But even the chimneys created some issues. "You couldn't mount directly on to the chimney, you couldn't drill into it, so we had to come up with different ways of mounting on the building. On the chimney, for example, we pretty much used what you would call a compression mount. So we'd use some steel on two sides of the chimney with some threaded rod, and were able to make a frame around the chimney, then put a pipe on it, then put the radio on to the pipe," Ockers said.
SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Who uses the 5G network
Even though the service hasn't been heavily advertised, about 6,000 to 8,000 users are already logging onto the Governors Island network each month, according to Ockers.
And it's not just the public using the network: New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress has environmental sensors on the island, and they're utilizing the 5G network to collect data in real time.
The data from the sensors hasn't been compiled yet to determine patterns, but just having the sensors in place in a 5G environment makes it easier because in the past, students would go down once a week to manually download data from the sensors, and now they can collect it remotely.
What's next for Governors Island
The first phase was designed to get the network put in place and talk to visitors and vendors to see how it works for them. Previously, vendors on the island, such as those selling food and drinks, had Point of Sale issues because of bad cellular reception; now they've been able to connect faster to complete transactions.
Some of the buildings are going to be leased over the next 12 to 18 months, and so the next step is for Fiberless Networks to create direct high-speed circuits to those buildings, as opposed to just Wi-Fi. That will help market the buildings and bring business to the island.
"Verizon is planning on coming over to the island, and bringing services. We already have services on the island. So there will at least be two choices for folks that come in on the island there, so there's some competition already," Ockers said.
There's also a plan to put in new smart light poles and a fiber ring around the island. The smart light poles will allow for additional access points for the 5G network, and security cameras and environmental sensors will be added to the fixtures.
"Basically, we'll manage the network for all the connectivity that comes into play. And then those connections will also be utilized for the 5G, to see what's coming out with the 5G, and to do some testing on the 5G. The intent is to see if we can build a neutral host environment on the island. But that's yet to be determined," Ockers said.
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Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including People, W and Women's Wear Daily.