Autonomous vehicles, augmented reality, smart cities, the internet of things – these and other emerging technologies will require wireless connectivity, and lots of it. In response, wireless service providers are working to bolster their wireless networks by deploying low-power miniature antennas called small cells, which supplement larger cell towers and can deliver lightning-fast 5G service.
Small cells might seem innocuous enough. They are, after all, much smaller than a standard cell tower. However, because their range is limited, small cells must be deployed in dense networks to provide continuous service. By some estimates, providers will need to install small cells every 250 to 300 feet to provide adequate coverage. And since each provider has their own network, full scale deployment of small cell infrastructure could result in the installation on thousands of new antennas on city streets and rights-of-way.
The challenge posed by small cell infrastructure was laid bare at a recent U.S. Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) meeting, where National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) staff planner Michael Bello gave a talk on small cell deployment in Washington, D.C.
Bello indicated that small cell infrastructure could, in many cases, be mounted on existing infrastructure such as telephone poles, street lights, or bus stops. Still, the sheer number of antennas required all but guarantees the deployment of small cells will have a visual impact on the public realm.
“I want to underscore that the implementation of this technology could result in thousands of small cell antennas and related equipment across the city, and it may result in several per block,” said Bello.
Small cells could result in “impacts to our viewsheds, historic character, access and circulation, and potential for more streetscape clutter.”
The Washington, D.C. department of transportation (DDOT) – the agency with permitting jurisdiction for right-of-way infrastructure – has already entered into master license agreements with multiple cell service providers for small cell deployment on DC streets.
Bello said that the NCPC is working with DDOT, along with a number of other agencies, to develop design guidelines for this new infrastructure.
“The guidelines will address various aspects of placement and design, including general design specification, spacing between small cell poles, distance from tree boxes and root systems, accessibility, the number of poles per block, and the poles design and finish.”
Public comments indicated that, for some residents, these guidelines may not be enough. Georgetown ANC Commissioner Joe Gibbons and Citizens Association of Georgetown board member Elsa Santoyo both voiced concern about the impact of small cells could have on the historic character of Georgetown and urged that small cell installations be subjected to a formal design review process, something not required by DDOT’s existing agreement with service providers.
DDOT manager Kathryn Roos said her agency’s agreement with service providers did not preclude such oversight. “The master license agreement is explicit in saying that the small cell companies must get whatever approval that is needed.”
“DDOT’s role in this is really as a facilitator. We saw that this was a particularly sensitive program, and so we reached out to our partners at NCPC, CFA, and SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office) to help facilitate a conversation.”
CFA Commissioner Toni Griffin pushed back against that characterization of DDOT’s role: “To the extent this can be viewed as privately-operated public infrastructure, I think we’re going to need a public owner and advocate — and not just a facilitator.”
In other jurisdictions, legal battles have broken out between state and local governments over who has the right to decide how cell service providers can deploy small cell technology – and how much they have to pay for the right to do so on publicly controlled rights-of-way.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, twenty states have passed laws intended to facilitate small cell deployment. Many of these laws achieve this goal by limiting local regulation of the deployment process. These efforts are often backed by the CTIA, a trade organization that represents the wireless communications industry.
The federal government has also begun to take note of the issue. Earlier this summer, Senator John Thune (R-SD) introduced the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act (S. 3157), which would require local agencies to process small cell applications within 60 to 90 days and limit the amount that municipalities can charge service providers for the use of the public right of way. And in March, the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to adopted rules intended to reduce regulatory hurdle to small cell deployment.
Local leaders, for their part, have argued that local regulations are not a major obstacle to deployment. In a letter to the FCC ahead of the commission’s March meeting, three dozen mayors and local leaders insisted that “our communities strongly desire more options for high quality internet access, and we are happy to work collaboratively with any Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that are willing to provide such opportunities. However, our residents and businesses appropriately balk at the placement of a 100-foot monopole on their lawn with no recourse, or to having their local government’s hands tied when it comes to the public recovering just compensation for the use of the public’s right of way.”
At the CFA meeting, Commissioner Griffin envisioned a more creative approach to the issue. “Maybe we should ask the service providers to sponsor a design competition to help us bring more voices to the table and solve the problem. Design guidelines will get us some of the way, but not all the way.”