The next generation of blazing-fast cellular data speeds hasn’t arrived yet, but the major wireless carriers are hard at work in Denver laying the groundwork.
So far, Verizon has led the pack by planting its flag in dozens of spots, in the form of 30-foot poles topped with antennas that boost signal strength in a one- to two-block radius. Hundreds more, or perhaps thousands, are likely on the way, city officials say.
The installations are turning heads — though not always in a good way.
Residents of The Riviera, a 36-unit condo building at 1175 Emerson St., protested last month after a Verizon contractor, with no apparent notice, installed a pole footsteps from the main entrance of their building, along with an in-ground access box for the antenna’s fiber connection. To some, the green pole marred the street view of the building, as though a permanently unused flag pole had been installed right out front.
“The general concern was just aesthetics,” said Kevin Logan, the homeowners association president. “They didn’t pay attention to the fact that it’s the entrance to our building.”
A similar story is playing out across the country, as the carriers’ attempts to accommodate growing data needs and new technology clash with more traditional neighborhood concerns.
In Denver, a Capitol Hill neighborhood group and a city councilman put pressure on the city’s Department of Public Works, which confirmed it has asked Verizon to move the Riviera pole elsewhere.
That stance followed Denver’s recent adoption of more stringent rules for where newly permitted poles should be placed — preferably closer to street corners, for starters — and a requirement that the companies notify adjacent property owners before installation. In part, the city was responding to months of questions from surprised property owners and landlords.
Fifty-two “small cell” poles, have already been installed by Verizon in the last year or so across some of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, next to sidewalks, alleys and streets from Highland to downtown to Cheesman Park. AT&T and companies working for other carriers just recently started applying for permits.
City Councilman Wayne New, who helped The Riviera residents, said Verizon launched its data expansion before neighborhood groups knew what was happening.
“I think it’s going to be a lot better now,” he said, adding that city officials “should have caught it earlier” and alerted neighborhood groups. “It’s not that we’re against it. Five-G is coming, so we’ve got to help (the carriers). But we’ve got to make it work for all residents as well.”
CELLULAR POLE LOCATIONS
Verizon has installed 30-foot poles topped by “small cell” antennas in more than 50 locations.
With 175 more poles in the pipeline, the city says it anticipates Verizon and competing carriers will install hundreds, or even thousands, across the city in coming years. Several suburban cities also are preparing for forays by Verizon, AT&T and other carriers in places with high customer-data demands.
Though New and some neighborhood advocates suggested Denver was slow to react, Public Works spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn said the new placement rules could serve as a model for other cities.
“From my perspective,” she said, “the team has done an excellent job creating a new program to respond to a proliferation in requests for small cell towers, developing requirements that are mindful and respectful of our residents and communities.”
New and neighborhood advocates from Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods have pushed the carriers to attach antennas to existing utility poles and traffic signals — both owned by Xcel Energy — as much as possible. New says they’ve received no firm commitments. They also hope multiple carriers will share poles, a scenario that presents technological challenges that a Panasonic unit in Denver is attempting to solve.
An Xcel spokeswoman said the utility has allowed some carriers to use its power line poles since 2015, and it’s been talking with several about negotiating access to traffic signal poles in Denver.
Verizon, for its part, says it hopes to reach an agreement soon.
“When and if there are no poles available to us, and we have to build a new pole to house a small cell, we make every effort to integrate it into the look and feel of a community,” said Meagan Dorsch, Verizon’s market spokeswoman.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE SURGE IN STAND-ALONE POLES?
Two major factors are driving the rise of small cell antennas: Carriers need to keep up with fast-growing mobile data use — it has more than tripled nationwide between 2014 and 2016, according to an industry association, and is expected to surge even higher in coming years — and are preparing to offer faster fifth-generation (5G) mobile broadband service. According to varying estimates, 5G will offer data speeds at least several times faster than current service, possibly by a factor of 10 or more.
The carriers expect to roll out 5G in the next couple years, but the emerging technology’s signals are more fragile and travel shorter distances than existing 4G and LTE signals. Networks long had relied on hulking cell towers that have become common in recent decades and were spaced farther apart.
For now, the small cell antennas along with existing towers will help increase data signal saturation in densely populated areas — as a kind of hub-and-spoke system.
Verizon told the Federal Communications Commission recently that about 62 percent of its cell antenna installations last year were small cells rather than larger towers. It says it began installing small cells in 2013, and it applied for its first standalone poles in Denver in August 2016.
But as the carriers have expanded from early placements of those small antennas on buildings to planting stand-alone poles, they’ve been a step ahead of local governments. The industry has sent armies of lobbyists to state legislatures in recent years to ensure they could install the technology with minimal local interference.
A year ago, wireless industry representatives testified in favor of Colorado House Bill 1193, which won unanimous approval in the Senate and a nearly unanimous vote in the House.
That new law extended existing protections for broadband providers to the wireless carriers as they install small cell networks. It requires reasonable access to public rights of way, stipulates that local governments must process applications within 90 days, allows each application to include batches of up to 10 sites and limits fees to about $200 a year per site.
That is the annual fee charged by Denver, along with application fees of $3,100 for the first right-of-way permit application and $2,500 for applications after that.
Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, cast one of just two votes against the House bill. Last week, he cited concerns about how many small cell antennas were likely to result and the allowance of batch applications. The law does allow for local governments to consider public health, safety and welfare in approving placements, but Garnett said there was a need for more discussion about community impact.
“It’s like we put the industry before we put regulatory common sense,” he said.
WILL THE POLES FADE INTO THE BACKGROUND?
Opinions about the poles vary — even within the leadership of Capital Hill United Neighborhoods, the community group that helped The Riviera.
“Everyone is tied to their devices and their internet in the home,” said Mark Cossin, CHUN’s vice president of community engagement. “To me, it’s a necessary change. When people look at the telephone poles and lines, we’ve forgotten. We don’t see them. And yet they’re uglier than the cellphone towers that are providing new services.”
But count Shayne Brady, a CHUN zoning committee co-chair, as hopeful that the carriers install as few stand-alone poles as possible.
“This isn’t the first set of towers, telecommunication antennas, satellites. Don’t you think all these cities should have plans in place?” she said. “Everything had to be a reaction from the neighborhood groups.”
As of last week, Verizon had permits for 90 more poles that it hasn’t installed, according to figures provided by Denver Public Works. Applications for another 85 potential locations are under review; most are for Verizon, but some are being sought by AT&T and companies representing Sprint and T-Mobile, as well as the communications company Zayo Group.
Denver’s new permit requirements, issued in mid-January, require the stand-alone poles to be at least 250 feet apart — and “preferably” near intersections, within alleyways or near side-yard property lines, rather than right in front of homes or buildings. They can’t be installed next to public parks or historic landmarks without approval.
Kuhn said Public Works was reviewing Verizon’s permits for poles it hasn’t yet installed to make sure they comply with the new location requirements. The city also plans to review the already-installed cell poles, she said, and will consider complaints from the public.
New, the councilman, said he also planned to check out the finished antennas and report any problems to Public Works.
Updated March 12, 2018 at 4:35 p.m. Because of incomplete information from a source, the story was changed to say that Denver Public Works has plans to review the placement of already-installed small cell poles based on recently adopted regulations.
This article originally ran on govtech.com.