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5G Aesthetics Prove a Balancing Act for Cities Like Palo Alto

Crown Castle has the unenviable task of working with cities to deploy wireless networks, often after backing state legislation bypassing their authority to set lease rates for access to public rights of way.

The nation’s largest wireless infrastructure provider, Crown Castle has been accused of painting local government as a barrier to fifth generation wireless, or 5G, and undermining their leverage in public-private partnerships.

Still, Crown operates its own networks in communities for 20 to 30 years—making the Houston-based company a long-term reality for many municipalities.

“We do try to take municipal concerns into account because, at the end of the day, I need to get a permit to meet customer needs,” Karmen Rajamani, Crown Castle central regional director of government relations, told Route Fifty in an interview. "I would urge municipalities that they are the ultimate approver and permit issuer. They have power to enforce the standards that the community demands but also welcome small cells and 5G.”

In California, the Palo Alto Planning and Community Environment Department recently approved a controversial application from telecom infrastructure provider Vinculums, on behalf of Verizon, to deploy 11 small cells in the Bay Area city’s Midtown, Midtown South and Palo Verde neighborhoods. The application represents the first of six clusters on the city’s plate, possibly seven, three of which are proposed by Crown Castle.

Residents appealed the decision arguing—despite the small cell equipment and antenna being contained in brown covers called shrouds—the unsightly infrastructure should be undergrounded. Their seven appeals were denied.

“The city’s interest is the same that any community has to make sure residents and businesses have access to the internet and next generation wireless services,” said Jonathan Lait, the Planning and Community Environment Department’s assistant director.

Lait described Palo Alto’s relationship with Crown Castle as “less of a partnership” and more of the city ensuring small cells are deployed “in a way that’s least intrusive and observable to the average people on the street.”

Also working on behalf of Verizon, Crown Castle installs the infrastructure, and then wireless carriers determine how many poles and fiber strands they want to use to expand their network or close gaps in coverage.

Crown Castle’s equipment generally occupies 3 to 6 cubic feet of space and is stealthed to look like a green service mailbox, Rajamani said. While size varies among infrastructure providers, those are the parameters generally codified when states pass small cell laws.

“If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it,” Lait said.

Small cells are smaller in size than previous iterations of wireless infrastructure, and they bring the promise of 5G—though the technology remains theoretical. The wireless industry promises 5G deployment in 2018.

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