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What are those brown boxes on light poles across the Philly region? Government surveillance? Alien invasion?

So far 1,824 of these brown boxes have been installed in Philadelphia in public rights-of-way. But that’s only the leading edge of an invasion. City residents will start seeing more -- many more -- of these boxes. And so will residents of town throughout the region.

Wireless companies will install thousands of these on light and utility poles in Philadelphia.
Wireless companies will install thousands of these on light and utility poles in Philadelphia.Read morePaul Boni

On a walk around Society Hill, lawyer Paul Boni looked up at 38th Parallel Place and Spruce Street and was surprised to see a big brown box with wires hanging on a city light pole. He looked around the neighborhood. There were more of them, seemingly on every block.

“My initial reaction,” Boni said, “was what government spy technology is this?”

Boni put the question of the boxes’ provenance to Curious Philly — the forum through which we answer queries from readers about the city and region — and here’s what we found.

They’re new small cell antennas for mobile coverage, a Philadelphia official said after reviewing photos that Boni emailed to The Inquirer.

And Philadelphia residents will start seeing more -- many more -- of them.

So far, wireless providers have installed 1,824 small cells in Philadelphia in public rights-of-way. But that’s only the leading edge of an invasion.

Over the next decade, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint will each hang several thousand small cells on light and utility poles around the city, part of an infrastructure project that will entail an estimated 800,000 small cells nationwide.

They boost cellular coverage -- more coverage bars on smartphones -- and prepare the city for next-generation 5G wireless services. Zoning fights have broken out over how and where telecom companies can put them throughout Pennsylvania and other states. There was a big zoning fight in Doylestown Borough in Bucks County as residents feared that the ugly boxes detracted from the borough’s charm.

Boni is somewhat uncomfortable with the small cells. He thinks that, over time, they might be unnecessary as technology advances.

Other observers have raised concerns about potential health effects of wireless beams from small cells outside apartment windows or near playgrounds.

"Landlines seem to be a dying thing and we realize we need cell phone coverage not just for 911 but for everyone,”said Richard Montanez, the city’s deputy commissioner of transportation.

Philadelphia has asked the carriers to “co-locate” their small cell antennas, Montanez said. This means two or more wireless carriers use the same equipment on the same pole.

Small cell antennas are mini-cell towers that utilize public rights-of-way. They’re inexpensive for the telecom companies to put them up. 5G services will lead to driver-less cars. It also is expected to enhance telemedicine. Wireless companies say they will offer high-speed internet services over 5G networks to compete with Comcast and other cable companies, though some analysts are skeptical that 5G can deliver on all its hype.

The Trump administration has said that the U.S. has to be a global leader in 5G, beating China at this next-generation wireless service. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission made it easier for wireless carriers to install the small cells. Cities blasted the new FCC rules as subsidizing profitable wireless carriers through low fees and mandated quick responses to applications. Philadelphia was among the cities opposed to the new rules.

Philadelphia charges carriers $400 to review applications for the small cells on utility-owned wood poles and $800 for city light poles. There is a $50-a-year inspection fee, and the permits last a decade.