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Local Control at Heart of ‘Small Cell’ Debate

To hear a wireless trade group tell it, deploying small cell antenna technology will enhance a city’s ability to compete in the next 5G technology race that pits the United States against the likes of China, the European Union, Japan and South Korea.

Small cell antennas are defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as low-powered wireless base stations that typically provide coverage for targeted indoor or localized outdoor areas ranging in size from homes and offices to stadiums, shopping malls, hospitals and urban outdoor spaces. The towers are roughly the size of a shoebox.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), which represents the wireless communications industry in the United States, “Americans invented the cell phone, the smartphone and the app industry and 4G networks,” and they argue that now is the time to jump forward and beat the competition for wireless dominance. But at what cost?

Often, what benefits wireless service providers — and their customers — comes at the cost of local control, where public infrastructure and private equipment meet.

For the state of Arizona, which dreams of usurping California's technological dominance, passing the CTIA-sponsored bill could not happen fast enough.

The state Legislature passed the bill in spring 2017 and paved the way for 5G deployment as quickly as possible. "I was proud to sign House Bill 2365 on March 31," said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, adding that it would expand capacity to existing wireless networks while improving infrastructure.

According to Ducey, in an editorial published on LinkedIn, tech companies like Uber, Google, Apple and Yelp have flocked to Arizona for reasons that signing the small cell bill make sense. “We’re making it clear to them that our state is laying the groundwork for the future: streamlining the deployment of 'small cell' wireless facilities, reforming our regulatory framework to meet the needs of today, and accelerating investments in our economy."

HB 2365 also found support from four major wireless companies, AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint, as part of a nationwide effort to end “overly-burdensome siting ordinances” and “excessive fees to gain access to municipal rights of way.” To date, some 13 states have enacted small cell bills sponsored by the CTIA, these include Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, Rhode Island and Virginia.

In all these states, each bill is different, but they all have common elements:

1) expedited timelines for processing applications;

2) reduced and capped fees for right-of-way use and applications;

3) presumed application approvals and limited scope for local governments to deny requests; and

4) prohibited or limited zoning authority over attachments and new poles.

But the harsh reality is that this legislation is not only burdensome to implement for smaller cities that want to be on the cutting edge, it also takes control away from cities and counties.

On Dec. 4, 2017, Gilbert announced that was the first Arizona community to implement a streamlined program permitting small wireless facilities in municipal rights-of-way, bringing in the infrastructure needed for future technologies.

“This is a critical step in preparing our community for future jobs and technologies, and will help us tremendously as Gilbert continues to grow,” Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels said.

Nichole McCarty, transportation planner for the city of Gilbert, has been heading up the effort to adopt a whole new process and fees that would align the city with the legislation. “No one had a process in place with this bill.”

She said the city had to make important changes in zoning, small cell equipment review and fees. “There was a huge hustle to get this together,” she explained.

Gilbert is in Maricopa County and is within the Phoenix metropolitan area. Once known as the hay shipping capital of the world, Gilbert has grown exponentially from 5,700 in 1980 to over 200,000 in 2010. It encompasses 76 square miles and is the most populous incorporated town in the United States.

“We have tried to smooth the process for carriers,” McCarty said. To do this the city, which she says has the lowest public-servant-to-population ratios in the state, brought together 26 city employees for four hours of training, so each could help process applications and smooth permitting licenses. The city does not expect to hire more staff to help out. “Our approach was to get everyone involved, so we each had a hand in it.”

While Gilbert has good cell coverage already, they believe that the deployment of 5G will allow for more autonomous car coverage. “We are bracing for the impact of autonomous vehicles.” To do this, the city had to examine public access spots that cell carriers might want to cover. “We have had to map our above-ground infrastructure and release them publicly.” Because their experience has been limited to larger cell towers, officials aren't sure quite what to expect.

“We expect a rush and a ton of discovery,” she said. Though the city has never released infrastructure maps before, a GIS map will be released on the city website soon. “This is a lot of work for us.”

And while Gilbert sees the opportunity to enact state law as a business proposition, what about a much more massive state that does not worry so much about attracting business?

For the state of California, with eyes on competing on a global level, passing the CTIA-sponsored bill was an unnecessary step that would have taken away local control and revenue.

Even though the state Assembly passed the measure without issue, there was so much ruckus raised publicly about the bill that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the measure in October 2017. In his signing memo, Brown said he saw the value in “extending this innovative technology rapidly and efficiently,” but added that the bill took too much control away from cities and counties.

The bill, Senate Bill 649, was co-authored by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward. It alarmed many local government officials because it would have capped how much they could charge cell companies for leases on city-owned infrastructure. Other, grass-roots activists and scientists raised concerns about the risk to public health from the cell towers.

The bill’s sponsor was disappointed with the veto. “We spent a lot of time working on amendments to address many of the concerns raised during the year,” said Quirk. However, the lawmaker said he has some hope that the governor is willing to reconsider the issue down the line.

This article originally ran on

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