Tensions rise as officials struggle to address small cell deployment challenges

Nokia small cell
Small cells can be located on light poles or other objects.

Tensions are increasing among local, state and federal officials, all of whom are hoping to address the zoning, permitting and deployment challenges that continue to plague the small cell market. But most everyone agrees that something needs to be done.

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.

But 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.

Partly as a result, the FCC voted last month 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.

The FCC is also seeking comment on ways to improve rules at the local, state and federal levels, and will examine its own guidelines for procedures regarding historic preservation and environment review.

The FCC will seek comment on overhauling its own guidelines and procedures for small wireless transmitters for several more weeks, and—given the 2-1 voting edge enjoyed by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly—will almost certainly adopt rules to streamline processes and accelerate deployments in the coming months. 

“Many localities and tribes are undoubtedly acting in good faith,” O’Rielly said during last month’s FCC meeting. “But bad actors are ruining it for everyone … Infrastructure siting is not a way to increase revenues.”

Among other things, the FCC hopes to establish a “deemed grant” that would enable deployments to move forward if local governments don’t act on applications within a specific amount of time. The commission will also evaluate the fees charged by some localities to deploy small cells.

Vendors making unwanted headlines

Regulations aren’t the whole story, however, and some industry insiders said vendors are at least partially to blame. The market has grown increasingly controversial in recent months as carriers and their partners such as Mobilitie, Crown Castle and others move more aggressively to roll out small cells, sparking pushback by officials in cities in towns across the United States:

  • Boston, Los Angeles and other municipalities accused Mobilitie in an FCC filing (PDF) of "falsely claim(ing)" it has legal rights to use public property and has filed documents under at least 17 different names that use the term "Utility Pole Authority” in an effort to present itself as a utility company. Mobilitie CEO Gary Jabara told FierceWireless he didn’t “have any data” on that allegation or any of the other incidents reported in this story. “We have contractors that work for us all across the country, and we obviously would not just hope but mandate that anybody that’s working on our behalf does the right thing for whatever agreed-upon civil and or construction plans they have,” Jabara said. “With any large-scale program, things may happen that shouldn’t happen, and I’m sure that whatever has happened out there has been rectified.”
  • The Texas Municipal League said in an FCC filing (PDF) that Mobilitie built an 83-foot tower late last year within the city’s historic district without giving proper notice. Mobilitie had described the tower as a “utility pole” in plans it had submitted, the Municipal League said, when in fact it would fall under the FCC’s definition of a tower. Mobilitie removed the tower then submitted a request to the city to reinstall it.
  • Crown Castle’s proposed plan to install towers and nodes on telephone poles and streetlights in Rye, New York, for Verizon is facing a petition (PDF) from members of the city council. Residents had expressed concerns that the deployment could have a negative impact on property values, and the council is now considering revising telecom rules to streamline approval processes.
  • A Mobilitie contractor reportedly drilled test holes on land owned by the Washington County Fair in upstate New York earlier this year without getting permission, according to county supervisor Daniel Shaw. The company had submitted an application to build a tower near where the holes were drilled, but the effort had been shelved. “The place where they drilled is in our long-range plan for putting a driveway,” said Mark St. Jacques, the fair’s director. Mobilitie CEO Jabara said last week he did not have details on the incident.
  • Similarly, a newspaper in Goliad, Texas, reported last month that Mobilitie had erected a 120-foot pole without receiving county permission. The Goliad County and District clerk told FierceWireless that the court shelved approval of the contract pending negotiations between the county and the company. Goliad County Attorney Rob Baiamonte confirmed the situation and said the city ordered Mobilitie to remove the pole.
  • A California appeals court last fall ruled against (PDF) T-Mobile, Crown Castle and ExteNet Systems, affirming San Francisco’s right to control where antennas are placed based on aesthetic considerations. “The City does not intend to regulate the technologies used to provide personal wireless services,” according to the ruling. “However, the City needs to regulate placement of such facilities in order to prevent telecommunications providers from installing wireless antennas and associated equipment in the city’s public rights-of-way either in manners or in locations that will diminish the city’s beauty.”
  • The city council in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is in talks with Zayo and other vendors as it considers overhauling its approval and permitting rules for small cells. “The versions I’ve seen are all horrible,” Councilman Darrin Ledford said, according to The Chattanoogan. “They are not very appealing.”

State legislation prompts pushback at the local level

Meanwhile, the wireless industry is backing legislation in at least 20 states this year, according to a recent report from NPR, that would grant small cell vendors easier access to “street furniture” like streetlights and utility poles. Legislation on the topic is moving forward in Arizona, Colorado and Virginia, among other states, and last year Kansas and Ohio passed laws to address the matter.

Those efforts are drawing pushback from local governing boards, though. The Daily News of Palm Beach, Florida, reported last month that Mayor Gail Coniglio is lobbying against multiple bills she said undermine “home rule,” using broad legislation to remove power from local agencies.

Similarly, multiple California cities are battling the state’s Senate Bill 649, local station KCRA reported. The bill would transfer authority to determine where wireless antennas are placed from municipalities to the state.

The measure is opposed by Omar Masry, a city planner who until recently served as a senior analyst for the city and county of San Francisco.

“Please note that is IS possible to build robust and competitive broadband wireless that is respectful of communities,” Masry wrote last month in a blog post opposing SB 649.

“I know this because, in a prior role I worked for multiple cities, with carriers, on hundreds of well-designed wireless sites in multiple cities. It is not easy though,” Masry added. “Getting to that point only happens when cities/counties aren’t hamstrung by State/Federal laws, and (are) able to work with carriers on behalf of residents and Main Streets, to push for better design and siting. SB 649 guts that ability, and is (a) taxpayer giveaway to telcos.”

As with state legislation, some of those rules may spur backlash from communities wishing to exert more control over small cell rollouts in their cities and towns. But carriers and their partners are likely to embrace the rules as they look to ramp up rollouts to meet ever-increasing demands for mobile data.