AT&T's DAS plan prompts macrocell rallying cry in Palo Alto

editor's corner

A funny thing happened on the way to small cell nirvana. Some jurisdictions oppose the deployment of small cells and/or small antennas on their streets and are demanding operators use large, macro towers instead. One of the most noteworthy battles on this front is occurring in the heart of Silicon Valley. Back in March 2011, FierceBroadbandWireless reported on AT&T's (NYSE:T) proposal to build 80 new small-antenna tower sites on top of utility poles across downtown Palo Alto, Calif., in a bid to bolster voice and data capacity in areas that experience heavy data traffic.

However, many residents of Palo Alto are less than pleased about AT&T's DAS proposal, which is why the city now proposes to construct macrocells on public property, including electric utility substations and City Hall. The idea is that if the city can build these sites and then encourage mobile operators to share them, operators won't need to deploy DAS, which some residents consider invasive and disconcerting.

The city came up with its plan after hearing from Crown Castle International, which contends the city could gain sufficient wireless coverage if operators were to deploy their equipment on three city-owned cell towers that would be as tall as 225 feet. A seemingly more palatable alternative suggested by Crown Castle is the use of six macrocell towers about 100-feet tall along with some distributed antenna systems.

Palo Alto's city council voted 8-0 in early July to solicit proposals for its macro tower plan, according to the San Jose Mercury News. The department of planning and community environment is aiming to have a macrocell buildout proposal ready for the city council in early 2013.

Of course, if Palo Alto builds its macrocells that doesn't necessarily mean operators will hop on board to use them. And if they do, there is no guarantee that the towers will obviate the need for small cells, Wi-Fi and/or DAS to fill in individual operators' coverage.

AT&T attorney John di Bene informed Palo Alto's city council via letter that even if the city goes ahead with its macrosite plan AT&T still wants to deploy its proposed DAS, noting the outdoor antennas are needed now to address current coverage gaps.

AT&T has a website specifically dedicated to its Palo Alto plans, which also include a Wi-Fi hot zone consisting of two new Wi-Fi antennas in downtown Palo Alto. The operator is even playing the union card, noting on the site's home page that the significant upgrade proposed for its wireless infrastructure in Palo Alto "will be built with skilled union labor and paid for with private investment dollars."

AT&T has been holding open houses to discuss the DAS project with Palo Alto residents. The company seeks to clarify its position on why more mobile sites are needed, how electro-magnetic frequency is measured and regulated and whether the availability of mobile broadband and voice access impacts real estate values.

That last point is obviously meant to counter the NIMBY (not in my backyard) argument that says nearby wireless sites make neighboring properties less desirable and, thus, decrease property values. I always find that particular contention interesting. If I were buying a house, would I be more put off by an antenna site next door or the knowledge that my smartphone won't work properly in my own neighborhood due to a lack of coverage? I honestly don't know how to answer that one.

Folks in the high-tech hub of Palo Alto have the same considerations to address, particularly if their politically correct macrosite plan gets off the ground but is shown later not to provide adequate coverage for delivering mobile voice and broadband data service where residents and businesses need it.--Tammy