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Street-light poles to double as mini-cell-towers

MANKATO — Those technological growths appearing on Mankato city light poles will only be metastasizing in the months ahead, according to city officials.

The "small cell" wireless gear — popping up on street lights in heavily traveled urban areas — could be bothersome for people who prefer streamlined aesthetics on their streets but will be good news for mobile device users who want more robust service for watching video or for other bandwidth-devouring applications.

For Mankato and other cities, the trend by cell-service providers to supplement massive cell towers with street-side boosters requires new rules and regulations to be in place by April 1.

"One of the things we're probably going to do is require a new pole to be put in," said Doug Storm, Mankato information technology director.

While there are limits to the amount of weight cellular companies can attach to a utility pole, requiring the companies to install a new pole will ensure the pole and its foundation are sturdy enough to handle the added equipment, said Landon Bode, an associate civil engineer with the city.

"They need to be designed to handle the weight that's at the top of that pole," Bode said.

Although the city can create regulations forcing companies to finance a sturdier replacement pole before adding their equipment to a street light, telephone or power pole, the city can't prohibit them from the right-of-way. The Minnesota Legislature, following a lobbying campaign by the cell-service providers a year ago, passed legislation forcing cities to accept the equipment.

"This was done in a very heavy lobby and it kind of caught a lot of cities by surprise," said Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges.

The League of Minnesota Cities initially opposed the legislation, sending out a "City Issue Fact Sheet" warning municipalities about the potential loss of local control over public right-of-way.

"These for-profit companies would be the only unregulated industry allowed unfettered access to this public asset," the bulletin advised. "Automatic approval provided by this legislation ties the hands of cities who are responsible for managing these public spaces and considering elements of public health, safety and aesthetics."

The proposed legislation, identical to what cell companies were pushing in multiple states, would have limited or eliminated cities' ability to force companies to share in the cost of right-of-way maintenance, according to the League.

The backlash by cities prompted changes in the legislation that preserved some local control, although not the right to prohibit the equipment and not the ability to set fees at any level that local officials saw fit.

One result of the statewide rules is that individual cities won't find themselves in lengthy negotiations with each cell company. For instance, Mankato officials negotiated a fee of roughly $10,000 with Verizon prior to passage of the new state law when that company sought to install equipment on 10 light poles around the city.

"This new statute takes all of that negotiation off of the table," Storm said.

The statute allows cities to charge a base fee of $150 a year plus $25 for maintenance. Electrical charges ranging from $73 to $182, depending on the size of the cell equipment, (or charges for the actual cost of the electricity) are permitted. Cities also can require reimbursement for costs associated with the review and approval of each cell site, and Bode and Storm said they will be tracking the amount of staff time consumed to make sure the reimbursement covers actual costs.

City officials expect the equipment to be concentrated on light poles in parts of town with large numbers of mobile device users — notably the Minnesota State University area, the east-side shopping district and downtown.

One as-yet-unresolved issue is what will be done if cell companies want to add wireless equipment to the ornamental street-lighting in the city center and other isolated areas.

"How we handle the decorative poles, we'll have to work through that," Storm said.

Hentges has little doubt that the equipment will be popping up in numerous locations.

"They wouldn't have went through that lobbying effort if they didn't think they wanted to roll this out," he said.

But he doesn't believe that homeowners should be too concerned about unattractive electronic gear on the light pole in front of their house. Residences tend to be served by hard-wired service to individual homes.

"This is really for mobile people, or people on the go," Hentges said.

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