AT&T’s ‘needlessly messy’ small cell highlights 5G deployment challenges

AT&T's small cell deployment was blasted as “needlessly messy." (Image: AT&T)

As the FCC and the wireless industry rush to lower the barriers for small cell deployments, some are raising a red flag on the issue, arguing that the mini cell towers might need to clean up their act before they go mainstream.

AT&T, specifically, was taken to task on the topic by consultant Michael Marcus in a recent FCC filing. Marcus pointed to a picture of a recent AT&T small cell and noted that the “needlessly messy” design sported four radios seemingly mounted haphazardly on a utility pole, with a “rat’s nest” of connecting cables.

“What is definitely needed here is carriers taking ownership of this problem themselves and committing to a new social contract with the neighbor of cell sites to pay more attention to the visual clutter created by their small base stations,” wrote Marcus, who said he also supports rules to streamline the deployment of small cells, and is urging the industry to create an oversight group to evaluate small cell designs.

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AT&T declined to comment on the filing.

Indeed, Marcus is not alone. A variety of federal and local entities have made similar arguments over the years as wireless operators race to densify their networks via small cells. And the issue is becoming more critical as the FCC moves forward with plans to vote on rules geared toward reducing the fees and permits that wireless network operators must pay to deploy small cells in select areas.

RELATED: Ahead of FCC vote, wireless industry tallies ‘excessive’ small cell deployment fees

For example, the city of Santa Rosa, California, recently put Verizon’s small cell deployment there on hold, partly because residents there were upset at the size and proximity of the small cells to their homes.

Similarly, residents in Buffalo, New York, are worrying about new legislation that would create a uniform small cell review process that could supersede local regulations. "The only things residents will get out of this bill is lower property values, visual blight, and a front-row seat to unregulated, mass proliferation of wireless infrastructure in their town," Alissa Shields, an Amherst environmental activist, told the Amherst Town Board last week, according to The Buffalo News.

Not surprisingly, those in the wireless industry are treading cautiously for fear of a public relations black eye. In some of its recent filings on the topic of small cells, network deployment company Crown Castle crowed about its efforts to “blend in with the aesthetics of the area” by, for example, hiding small cell network equipment inside what looks like a mailbox.

“Carriers build what they can get away with,” explained Ken Schmidt, president of Steel in the Air, a company that helps property owners negotiate cell tower leases. “That’s not a terrible thing, it’s just the reality.”

The real issue, Schmidt said, is that some small cell contracts allow network operators to return to the sites later to add additional equipment. He said that one client’s initial small cell deployment was designed to blend in to the environment, but it now looks like a cell tower because additional radio heads were added to the initial deployment.

“They’re designing for today’s needs without considering what’s going to be needed in the future,” he said.

Moreover, Schmidt argued that small cells are likely to cause additional problems in the months and years ahead, particularly as the FCC moves to smooth small cell deployments and states pass legislation aimed at encouraging the deployment of such devices.

“We’re not even in the bottom half of the first inning of these things,” he said. “Santa Rosa will happen again and again and again.”

Article updated with additional information March 15.

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