Faster internet could be coming to Shreveport — at a cost.
The City of Shreveport still is in the beginning stages of evaluating "small cell towers," which if established throughout the city could quicken internet connections by up to 10 times the current speed, according to Shreveport attorney Julie Lafargue.
Lafargue, who spoke at a city infrastructure meeting Monday, said careful consideration of the emerging technology could help lay a foundation for the city's future. Shreveport has seen a significant increase in both wireless traffic and requests from providers to establish the small cells in recent months, Lafargue said.
"The issue of small cells and wireless technology is here," Lafargue said. "We are, through this process, taking steps that will allow our city to be a smart city."
"Small cell" towers are defined by the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable.
The FCC also has prohibited cities from regulating wireless facilities "on the basis of environmental effects alone," though communities can reject them for "aesthetic reasons."
The towers come in a variety of forms and sizes. Some are camouflaged to look like American flags or trees, while others are as small as a person's hand and attach to existing utility poles.
Karen Strand, an assistant city attorney, said the city's goals is to create a "win-win" situation telecommunications companies and residents by ensuring the "best service possible" in the safest and least intrusive way.
City officials said last week that the city already has been approached by providers, including AT&T and Verizon, about establishing the wireless telecommunication facilities — also called "WTFs"— throughout residential communities and also in public rights of way.
City's Attorney William Bradford is drafting an ordinance — expected to appear on the council's Jan. 23 agenda — that would help establish a "uniform and comprehensive set of standards" for any wireless provider seeking to establish small cell receptors in Shreveport.
Lawrence "Rusty" Monroe, a city-hired consultant from the North Carolina-based Center for Municipal Solutions, advised the three members of the committee who were present on Monday — Councilmen Oliver Jenkins, Jeff Everson and Michael Corbin — that a "good" ordinance should focus on community impact.
"You want to control the impact, not the technology," Monroe said.
Monroe said the proposed ordinance should be "technology neutral," focusing not on the technology itself but on establishing the technology to preserve both public safety and surrounding property values.
Monroe said that Shreveport has seen a 100,000 percent increase in wireless traffic in recent years and that existing macro towers are becoming "maxed out" — unable to handle wireless demand.
To bring the city up to speed, Monroe projected, each wireless carrier would need to establish at least one WTF on every block, with additional nodes in large condo or apartment settings.
Monroe also advised city leaders to take precautions to ensure that any facilities established are structurally sound. He shared several slides of cities where towers had collapsed and endangered citizens' lives.
Public comment was limited to a handful of individuals able to attend the 1 p.m. meeting Monday. The meeting backed up to the city council's regularly scheduled meeting two hours later.
Those who spoke in favor of the small cell towers, mostly telecommunications representatives, said the technology could be camouflaged to keep with the character of surrounding communities.
"Cell technology as we understand it is important in certain areas, including downtown and historic areas," said Neil Bora, government relations manager for the wireless network Mobilitie. "But we also understand minimizing the impact on communities. You want something that matches existing infrastructure in the area."
Liz Swaine, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, voiced her support for the city's creation of a "well thought out, well reasoned ordinance that takes into account aesthetics."
Those who spoke against cited possible health concerns and potential miscommunication about who owns the poles to which WTFs would be attached.
John Hubbard, SWEPCO's external affairs manager, said his company owns "about 60 percent" of utility poles in the city. He said he spoke as a "worried landlord."
"We have had people who think these poles (we own) are available to them," Hubbard told the committee. "We pride ourselves on the safety of our employees. If someone is planning on putting something on our poles, we need to sit down and talk."
Social media comments also showed hesitation on the part of several city residents.
Lillian Poling, a freelance artist who lives in Shreveport, said the small cell towers she's seen are "ugly."
"I don't want to have to look at one from my back porch," Poling said in a Facebook post.
Vincent Douglas Rice III also voiced concerns about upfront, and hidden, costs.
"Until we know what other cities think about this, then let's just pass for now," Rice III said in a Facebook post. "Do we even know how reliable this stuff is or how much it'll be to maintain?"
Council members also asked about costs. Rob Vinet, regional director for AT&T, said he'd seen a wide range in other cities, from $150 to $1,000 per node. He also mentioned "annual fees" that ranged from $150 to $270 per node. But he also said that some providers will offer "batched" pricing for clusters of nodes.
Council members encouraged members of the public to continue to offer feedback.
The city's ordinance will be presented to the full city council on Jan. 23, with a final vote scheduled for Feb. 13. The Shreveport-Caddo Metropolitan Planning Commission will discuss the issue at its Feb. 7 meeting.