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'Small cell' technology expected to fast-track Chattanooga's broadband connectivity

On Tuesday, the Chattanooga City Council voted 9-0 in favor of new regulations for short-range "small cell" emitters, located on poles and other fixtures. The new technology, instead of large cell towers, is expected to create the next wave of bandwidth capacity.

No one spoke in opposition to the ordinance during its public hearing. As with any ordinance adoption by the council, the body must vote to approve it on a second, final reading, scheduled for July 18.

Small cells aren't just about boosting bandwidth for dense populations of cellular users now, they are about building for the future, Council Vice Chairman Ken Smith, co-chairman of the council's new Innovation Technology Committee, said after the meeting.

"Small cells really act more like amplifiers for [signals]," Smith said. "While at the same time, that increases connectivity for all users of the different networks. It also starts a chain reaction of accuracy of things like GPS. The closer you are to a tower, the more accurately you can be located."

He said strong signalization will be essential for the potential for operating wireless autonomous vehicles and avoiding signal drops "which will be critical for future innovations in technology."

Smith sponsored the ordinance after working on it for several "long, intense and focused months" with various city departments and CNX, a Kentucky-based broadband strategy consultant company hired by the city attorney's office.

Last fall, several council members called for a way to allow cellular providers to use the city's right of way without cluttering up the streets and sidewalks with too many poles or overburdening existing poles with too much emitter equipment.

The key to that will be to fast-track providers who will buy and lease "smart poles," which serve as streetlamps and host cellular antennas. Instead of taking anywhere from 60 days to 150 days to review and approve — or deny — requests to add an emitter to an existing antenna pole, place an antenna on water tanks or other alternative structure or build a new cellphone tower, providers get a 35-day window if they take the smart pole option.

"The ordinance that we present today balances the need of our citizens for cell [access], the provider's needs and the city's needs itself," Assistant City Attorney Keith Reisman said during a presentation to the council in late June. "The concept of the small cell allows for the providers to have a quick turnaround so that they can get their cells in place, while at the same time giving a standardized light pole to our city."

In the coming months, the council will review an ordinance setting out fees for small-cell providers who wish to use the public right of way.

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