Chicago suburbs latest battleground in fight over small cells

small cells
Local officials continue to fight state efforts to streamline small-cell deployments.

The suburbs of Chicago are the latest battleground in the ongoing fight over small cells.

The mayors of nine Chicago-area municipalities held a news conference this week in opposition to a proposed state law to streamline policies and processes for siting and deploying small cells, as the suburban newspaper The Daily Herald and other outlets reported. The county board chairs of all six Chicago-area counties also have publicly opposed the bill, although Chicago itself is exempted from the proposed legislation.

The standoff is the latest in a long list of conflicts between local municipalities on one hand and states and wireless carriers on the other. The Illinois officials say the bill—which was rejected in the Illinois House earlier this year but has recently been revived—limits local controls over small-cell deployments, imposes artificially low fees and eliminates the ability for municipalities to determine the use of rights-of-way.

Perhaps the most visible example of the small-cell controversy was California’s SB 649, which was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month in a move that marked a major defeat for CTIA. The proposed legislation essentially would have given wireless companies the same rights as public utilities, enabling carriers and infrastructure vendors to place transmitters in public rights-of-way and capping the fees cities could charge to install their devices.

“There is something of real value in having a process that results in extending this innovative technology rapidly and efficiently,” Brown said at the time in a brief statement. “Nevertheless, I believe that the interest which localities have in managing rights of way requires a more balanced solution than the one achieved in this bill.”

All four major wireless carriers in the U.S. are looking to small cells to improve coverage and increase capacity in advance of 5G buildouts. The antennas, which can be as small as a lunchbox, can be placed on “street furniture” such as lampposts or traffic lights as well as on the sides of buildings or other objects. And they sometimes require the installation of new poles that can be 120 feet or taller.

Zoning and permitting headaches have slowed the small cell market. Some municipalities are fighting small cell deployments based on concerns over aesthetics, noise, rights-of-way issues and other worries.

And municipalities around the nation continue to scramble to establish their own rules for small-cell deployments.

Meanwhile, federal intervention looms on the horizon as the number of skirmishes between local municipalities and states increases. The FCC voted in May to move forward with plans to make it easier for wireless carriers and their partners to deploy small cells in municipalities across the country. The agency approved “an examination of the regulatory impediments” (PDF) at the state and local levels that can slow the rollout of small cells and other transmitters in an effort to streamline siting and deployment processes.

Meanwhile, the FCC’s newest commissioner, Brendan Carr, said last month that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has appointed him to take the lead on the agency’s wireless infrastructure proceeding, including for small cells. Carr also said the agency will later this month on rules aimed at eliminating the need for historic preservation review in cases where telecom providers swap out old equipment with new equipment.