10 Key Issues for California Cities & Counties on the Challenges of Small Cells & “Not So Small Cells”


With only a few day left in the 2016 State legislative session, the wireless industry gutted and amended a proposed California law (AB 2788) on safe natural gas storage, into a law that would have allowed cell towers, rent-free, in front of your bedroom window or your driveway. Without any limits on height; limits on potentially large (coffin-sized) and noisy (cooling fans) cabinets for computer and batteries; or diesel generators on your sidewalk. The bill failed, thanks in large part to great work by the American Planning Association, The League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties.
 
 Nonetheless, Small Cells…and “Not So Small Cells” are still headed your way (the public right-of-way). This is your crash course.

Flyer depicting what AB 2788 would have allowed (without height limits), compared to a more realistic and pragmatic approach. The bill would have allowed brand new wood poles, just for cell antennas, and possibly accompanying diesel generators, on the ground (next to the pole) in front of your home.
  1. Small Cells are definitely not all small. Some are:
  • Loud — noisy cooling fans for computers (unless “passively cooled”).
  • Too tall — up to 120 feet tall (see 3rd photo below).
  • Too large — Cabinets the size of coffins or refrigerators, for computers and back-up batteries mounted on the sidewalk/lawn, or bulky cabinets mounted on the utility/light pole right in front of homes and bedroom windows); and
  • Downright messy — designs that sometimes look like they were put together at Radio Shack; if poorly designed (see photos below).
  • Dirty — diesel generators for backup power.

Small towns are not exempt from these challenges. Small Cells are likely headed your way (especially if you have a downtown or highway that attracts tourists). In fact, you may have accidentally already permitted them. See Item 2.

New wood pole (holding up cell and microwave antennas) and equipment enclosures for a for a “Small Cell” (appears to be by “Mobilitie” for Sprint) in the public right of way (where all other electric/telephone/cable utilities are already undergrounded) in Woodbridge, Virginia. It appears this site (along with others in the County) was built without required permits.

2. Small Cells Create New Challenges for Public Works. Instead of just placing large cell sites primarily on private property (towers in the middle of a ranch) or hidden in fake vent pipes on rooftops of buildings; wireless carriers are also pursuing sites in the “public right-of-way,” (PROW — streets & sidewalks) which mostly means antennas and equipment on or next to either: existing wooden utility poles; City-owned light poles; or installing brand new poles just for wireless (generally disfavored).

While Small Cells offer less coverage/capacity (mobile data for hundreds of devices) than a large-scale rooftop cell site on private property; installing Small Cells in the PROW is often cheaper than leasing private property; provides a tool for carriers to provide mobile data faster/closer to customers in both dense urban areas and low-density residential neighborhoods; and is comparatively subject to less discretion by the City/County, due to State law governing the public right-of-way. However, a California State appeals court (T-Mobile/Extenet/Crown Castle versus CCSF) recently re-affirmed ability of cities/counties to review (with limited & reasonable discretion) wireless in the public right-of-way.

Since permitting for construction in the public right-of-way typically falls under permitting by a City/County Public Works Department (without automatic review by Planning Departments), ensure your Public Works staff keeps an eye out for encroachment permit requests that include antennas/dishes/modems or anything that does not sound like it belongs to an incumbent wireline (copper/fiber wires for landlines and cable companies) or electric provider. 
Some companies use seemingly “confusing” business names like the “California Utility Pole Authority.” In one instance, an industry attorney told the audience of a 2013 wireless conference to tell Public Works staff members that they are installing telephone equipment; and to not reference terms such as: wireless, cellular, or antennas.

The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission speaking at a September 2016 Wireless Industry Conference. At minute mark 18:30, Chairman Wheeler begins to note how “5G” wireless will require not thousands of antennas but perhaps millions and this will require more work with cities and counties. Some think it is possible the FCC or Congress will push rules to do things like change the current Shot Clock (time limit for local review) from 150 days for Small Cells to 60/90 days, or exempt Small Cells on existing poles from local review (even if it includes a noisy cabinet 3 feet from your bedroom window). It appears that WIA/Verizon/AT&T continue to push laws at various State Capitols to exempt cell towers in the public right-of-way from local review.

Small Cells will likely necessitate greater work across traditional boundaries between Planning Departments (Design/Historic Preservation/Noise/Environmental Review) and Public Works Departments (encroachment permitting). Along with potential involvement of electric utilities (Power/Conduit/Fiber) and pole-owning (Leases) agencies.

Do your current rules cover wireless in the public right-of-way? Or do they only cover wireless on private property (and City buildings/parks)?

3. Your existing ordinances (rules) may not even cover Small Cells

Determine if your existing wireless ordinance (which typically only focused on cell antennas and towers on private property) also covers wireless facilities in the public right-of-way.

Or, inquire if your City Attorney can make that determination that the existing ordinance already does.

This may be a challenge if a provision of your current Zoning Ordinance specifically says the Ordinance does not cover the right of way (for all development, not just wireless).

It may be best to adopt rules just for wireless in the public right-of-way, for now, and work on a cohesive ordinance that is up-to-date; and also covers private property when you have time.

  • If an application is submitted for a facility that does not appear appropriate/complete/code-complying, then make absolutely sure to tell the carrier within 30 days, in writing (& within 10 days of re-submittal). Do not delay.
  • Your existing wireless ordinance may have been great; back in the 1990’s, but may actually be counterproductive now. See the last FAQ below for example reasons why.
  • You probably cannot “pause” an application that is new to your community, by just asking for a moratorium. Check with City/County counsel on the ramifications of AB 57, and the 2009/2014 FCC Broadband Orders. If possible, spend time adopting an urgency ordinance with actual standards, and not a moratorium.
  • Under a 2016 State law, AB 57, if a California City/County does not make a decision on a new wireless facility within either 90 days or 150 days (Section 3), then the site is automatically approved. Do not be in a position of having to explain a missed deadline and a new site being built, without review to your community.
  • Consider copying recent wireless ordinances, specific to the public right-of-way. Examples of recently updated ones include Rancho Palos Verdes, Ojai, Santa Barbara, San Francisco or San Diego. See Section 3 for more.
  • Come up with clear application forms that are relevant. For example, figure out if you need: noise studies (some sites have noisy cooling fans or generators); habitat/wetlands clearance (if new poles/trenching) from State/Federal agencies; determinations of whether aircraft warning painting and lighting (this can apply to poles as short as 50 feet in some rural areas or near airports link); consultation with local Native American tribes; proof of a coverage and/or capacity (mostly mobile data) gap.

To be clear, wireless carriers CAN come up with well-designed and well-situated Small Cells, but it requires a concerted effort by the City/County to move in that direction.

Antenna on top of pole. Equipment is likely on the ground or underground. The box on the left looks more like an electrical transformer not tied to the Small Cell.

4. Wireless Carriers may not build sites correctly, or with required permits. Make sure Planners or Public Works staff inspect sites. It is way too common for carriers to sneak in more equipment than allowed, install on the wrong pole, tear up concrete sidewalks and leave bumpy asphalt patches; or fail to live up to promises or conditions of approval (see FAQs below for examples of other “challenges”).

In Baltimore, Mobilitie (no relation to AT&T Mobility) apparently installed a brand new pole on a new concrete base on the sidewalk (inset photo to right), without permits and was fined $5K.

Be clear that multiple violations will result in denial of all pending applications (or come up with specific fines), with no exceptions. Keep original photo simulation on hand, or better yet, require the photo sims to be copied onto the plan set, in legible format, so the contractors and City inspectors have no excuse for missing it. If the carrier builds a new site without any permits make them rip it out. Do not let them legalize it.

Why is this proposed 120-foot tall “Small Cell” so tall and so close to the residential driveways? It appears it is so that “Mobilitie”” (Sprint’s network partner — & no relation to AT&T Mobility) can save money by using microwave dishes to “talk” to the cell antennas on shorter poles nearby (see image further below). This means, unlike other wireless carriers, using microwave dishes instead of running fiber-optic cables for miles (below City streets or on existing wooden utility poles) for what is known as backhaul (backhaul = connecting your cell phone to the cell antennas and then ultimately back to the internet/switch center). Also, by placing the poles in the public right-of-way (road edges — some are proposed in front of homes along sidewalks/driveways), the deployment is generally rent-free (in California), instead of placement on private property, with leases running a few thousand a month on either existing multi-carrier (multiple antennas) steel towers, or building rooftops (hidden antennas) on private property. There is the significant concern that if a City allows this type of approach (towers, rent-free in the right-of-way), that the community could loose control of their public right of way. (e.g. more boxes to accidentally back into as you exit your home). Because these poles are not likely co-locatable; it means the other three major wireless carriers would need to install their own poles nearby, if they choose a similar path, in order to save money on fiber-optic backhaul. Plus, if this path was pursued by one wireless carrier, then one would wonder why other wireless carriers would think of continuing to paying a landlord to host multiple antennas on the same pole/rooftop, on private property, for multiple carriers (less-intrusive); when they can each put up their own poles, rent-free in the public right-of-way. Side note: in urban areas you may eventually see new microwave dishes (to backhaul data from new small cells nearby) show up on existing Sprint/Clearwire rooftop-mounted cell sites.

5. Carriers may propose brand new wood poles or really tall steel poles in the public right-of-way. If a carrier is proposing a whole new site/pole, then there is absolutely no reason you can’t require a cleaner design with antennas and equipment fully, or partially, hidden in a steel or composite pole (see photo examples further below); preferably within new street lighting over a dark alley or road curve. However if you do plan to say no to a certain design, you need to make your concerns known early on (within 30 days of first submittal and within 10 days of the re-submittal), and in writing! Tall (over 55 feet) poles in the PROW should generally be disfavored unless in a remote/rural location.

New wood pole likely installed by Mobilitie, for Sprint, in Georgia. The boxes at the bottom appear to be computers and optional battery backup cabinets. It appears this site has more batteries than normal because the carrier could may not have been able to get electric power to the site. The round coffee can sized antenna on a side-arm above the battery cabinets appears to be a microwave relay so that the signal from your Sprint cell phone can connect to the antenna on top of the pole, and then the signal can travel through the microwave relay to microwave dishes on either a new 120-foot tall pole nearby, or an existing Sprint cell site on a rooftop within a few miles of the pole.

6. Neighbors will be really upset. Neighbors will especially dislike ugly, noisy, and large systems on existing wooden utility poles (and boxes next to their driveway) that they already think give the neighborhood a 3rd world aesthetic, and should be removed (“undergrounding”).

They will also ask about the cumulative impact of multiple providers coming in nearyb once the first site is approved. They will want to know why carriers cannot install wireless facilities on roofs of office buildings or shopping centers instead. They may not understand the difference between a front yard they enjoy and what area of their yard constitutes the public right of way. This may lead to accusations that a carrier is trespassing on their property (be prepared for phone calls to staff).

Neighbors will typically be less upset if:

a) the systems are small and well-designed, and on a steel/concrete pole (without the exposed brackets and cabling used on wood poles); or inside an integrated pole (antennas/equipment hidden inside the pole);

b) it is clear on the permit form that the system does not create noticeable noise (if applicable) or light (indicator or aircraft warning);

c) it is clear there will not be any new above ground boxes taking over the sidewalk;

d) they are given a copy of the RF report, and it is clear that they can call a specific number for free RF testing in their own home;

e) they are told about the location of a mockup or example they can view;

f) they see that City/County staff explored better locations with the carrier early on; and

g) to put it candidly, they will be less upset if they sense that someone at the City/County actually gave a darn about what is being installed in their neighborhood and pushed for better placement and design.

Bear in mind that the Federal rule (known as “6409”) on changes to existing cell sites (and the example change depicted above) does not apply if the City owns the actual pole. In California, most wooden poles are not owned by cities/counties; with the exception of some cities/counties with a municipal electric provider. Steel/concrete poles may be owned by either the City or the investor-owned electric utility (e.g. PG&E, SCE, SDG&E). The system on the left was built by NextG (Crown Castle) for Clearwire (Sprint). The system on the left was built by NextG (Crown Castle) for Verizon Wireless.

7. The Federal rules (“6409”) on changes (modification) to Small Cells after they are built requires forethought for initially approval designs.

For sites on poles not owned by the City/County, and also in the public right-of-way, a carrier can easily add 10 feet of height, six 6 foot horizontal arms, extra (bulky and noisy) equipment cabinets (on the pole) after the initial installation..

Simply put the carrier can take a well-designed site and make it look junky and noisy by using 6409.

For example,if equipment was also initially allowed on the ground, by the City/County, then more equipment (e.g. diesel generators for backup power, battery cabinets the size of coffins and computer cabinets) can also be added on the ground (hint: avoid any unscreened cabinets on the ground).

Keep in mind that factors like who owns the pole, and whether all the equipment is initially placed on the pole, or on the ground, or underground (instead of on top of the sidewalk) make a big difference years later.

It may not be appealing at first, but if the City, the carrier, and the electric utility work together to transfer the light pole (where Small Cells are proposed) from utility ownership to the City, then you can avoid a lot of future headaches (e.g. ugly/noisy equipment being added without much discretion due to “6409”), and get a better design. See Part 3 for more information.

After minute mark 18, a Vice Present at Verizon Wireless (speaking at a wireless industry conference) mocks residents for protesting cell sites. However, at one point he specifically mocks them for protesting sites not meeting a City’s aesthetic standards, even though he goes on to say the sites are completely shrouded. That statement was actually incorrect, since a number of the sites being protested at the time consisted of unscreened (i.e. not shrouded) antennas and large refrigerator-sized cabinets (with noisy cooling fans) on wooden utility poles located a mere few feet from bedroom bay windows.

8. Wireless carriers may initially refuse to modify an unsuitable design, and have a tendency to provide inaccurate information. Cities and counties across California continue to see wireless carriers provide designs and photo simulations (examples) that feature inappropriately large antennas/equipment/enclosures and/or submittals that do not accurately show what is proposed. Be prepared to say no early on to bad designs.

In addition cities/counties continue to see an inconsistent ability to build or maintain sites correctly (e.g. adding equipment without review/permits).

Rancho Palos Verdes (near Long Beach) got so tired of what they felt were inaccurate plans and photo simulations (example), by the neutral host carriers, that they now require a mockup to be built first, for the public to view.

In some instances neutral host carriers will tell City staff if they don’t approve quickly, they will just build sites on their own without permits.

9. Carriers may proposed inappropriately large quasi-monopoles & large equipment areas as “Small Cells.”

It’s all about context. So, in a rural equestrian southwestern canyon context, perhaps it is best to leave only the antenna on the existing wooden utility pole and place all of the supporting equipment in fake wine/whiskey barrels (or behind some boulders) on the ground below.

The large cabinets on the ground were proposed on a nicely landscaped (undergrounded) main street in South Orange County. This is not an acceptable design. The antenna design is bit clunkier than needed (rounded radome with hidden GPS preferred).

In other contexts, such as a wider right-of-way in a suburban residential neighborhood; perhaps fake wood lattice fencing (made of metal then textured and painted to match wood grain) to screen equipment cabinets that are under 4 feet in height; along with berming of the soil, can do the trick.

Recently, Crown Castle and the City of Palo Alto explored using fake USPS mailboxes (the green relay ones not used by the public) to house the equipment and leave the antenna on the nearby pole, in downtown areas.

Generally, you have more ability to require undergrounding (below sidewalk placement) of large/bulky equipment (computers/batteries/meter/shutdown switch) if it is a nice streetscape without existing wooden utility poles. See example photo below. Carriers will fight you tooth and nail on placing equipment under sidewalks, but if it’s relatively large equipment and a nice and narrow undergrounded (no wood poles) street, without below-ground space conflicts, then you can probably prevail if you push hard and early (tell carrier within 30 days of submittal). Oh, and you can’t place the antenna underground too. Just the equipment. The antenna needs to be above ground (though there is an odd exception being trial’ed) to work.

Carriers may also try to claim their monopoles are “not wireless facilities” and should be treated as utility structures (akin to poles for power lines). Reject this claim early, often, and in writing.

Example from Thousand Oaks (likely for Verizon Wireless). The antenna is on the basketball court light pole in the background. The bulk of the computers and batteries are underground. Carriers will say they will flood with water. That’s extremely rare. Plus, they make sump pumps anyways. Push for it…. Photo Credit: Oldcastle.

10. Small Cells will require collaboration with Utility Providers and City/County/Transit Agencies. Try to work with your City Manager (or equivalent), pole owners, and the local electric utility, on steps (See Part 3) you can take to get a much better design; such as wireless metering (avoiding a graffiti-prone box with glass bubble meter on the sidewalk), forgoing disconnect switch boxes (line drops/fuses), and taking ownership of specific steel/concrete utility-owned light poles (so that wireless carriers can’t use a Federal “6409” rule to make ugly/noisy equipment changes after the site is built).

Small Cell Antenna in the box on top of the bus shelter (JC Decaux Installation Video)

Also, consider working with the owners of bus shelters or regional transit agencies (e.g. poles that hold up overhead electric wires for light rail) to find more suitable locations and designs and avoid the push for brand new poles.


Disclaimer: These are my personal thoughts having worked as a City Planner in three California counties, and having conferred with many really bright Attorneys, City Planners and Public Works Engineers at plenty of other cities/counties. These perspectives are not representative of a specific City/County agency. I am not your City Attorney or County Counsel, so make sure to review applications, ordinances, and conditions with them.


— — — — — — — — — NEXT STEPS — — — — — — — — —

Part 1 | Answers to Frequently Asked Questions by Elected Officials, Residents, and City Planners/Public Works (see below)

Part 2 | Example photos of the good, the bad and the downright ugly (draft)

Part 3 | Tips on Crafting Ordinances, Public Outreach (draft)

Part 4 | Design Tips Based on Pole or Location Type (draft)


Answers to Some Frequently Asked Questions

Will wireless carriers abandon their efforts to build, or continue to operate existing larger (“macro”) antennas on either building rooftops, faux trees, or tall steel towers; and just put up Small Cells instead?

No. Wireless carriers still need those for overall coverage (think mostly voice calls) since Small Cells have a limited range (due to lower mounting heights and lower power levels). 
The industry trend is known as a “HetNet” (Heterogeneous Network); that uses Macro (large) sites (rooftops and big towers), outdoor Small Cells, and Indoor Small Cells all working together to provide not just voice coverage, but to also provide faster data speeds for things like mobile video.

However, there are always tradeoffs. Small Cell designs require more overall sites, but may be nearly rent-free (or a few hundred dollars a year depending on who owns the pole) if placed in the public right-of-way. Larger rooftop-mounted “Macro” sites, for example, can cover much wider areas, but site leases can range from $1,500 to $6,000 a MONTH, and approach $9,000+ in some prime urban/tourist-oriented areas.

Apart from leasing costs, in single-family neighborhoods, there may not be available locations (viable 3+ story apartment/office rooftops, church bell towers) for rooftop sites; which in turn drives interest by carriers to use Small Cells in the public right-of-way.

This proposal by Mobilitie in Oregon appears to be intended to a) be nearly rent-free by virtue of placement on a sidewalk, in the public right-of-way, instead of on private property; b) designed to provide signal to other future Small Cells (likely for Sprint). For reasons noted earlier, this is a very problematic proposal.
This photo simulation appears to show a proposed new wood pole and Small Cell, for Sprint, by Mobilitie in a residential neighborhood. The photo simulation seems inadequate in that it fails to clearly convey the cluttered nature of the actual design (given the installations seen in Los Angeles). A design like this seems like a poor choice and alternatives should be pursued such as attaching equipment to existing light poles or requiring a new steel streetlight pole on a nearby collector street (or blank corner) with more of the cabling inside the pole and a more streamlined design. It is also possible that photo simulations such as this neglect to include new overhead power lines running to the pole (unless it is clear that underground power cables will be brought to the pole).

What are the types of challenges cities/counties face, when it comes to neutral host carriers (e.g. Crown Castle, Extenet Systems, Mobilitie and Zayo [new entrant])?

Glad you asked. Here are some examples:

Carrier representative shops around photo simulations to City leadership (and/or municipal pole-owning agency) during initial leasing discussions (well in advance of permit submittals) that are misleading in that they do not show known required equipment (cabling, brackets, boxes on sidewalks, meters, RF stickers, GPS antennas) that may be needed/requested. You later realize that the actual intended design appears sloppy. Example of residents calling out seemingly deceptive design submittals.

Carrier never talks to the City and instead goes to the State (CPUC) for a CEQA Categorical Exemption (environmental review clearance). They then start installing new wood poles in known/potential Native American burial grounds next to residences, without any review. Yes, this happened….

Carrier proposes large equipment boxes on the sidewalk in locations that would fail to meet basic wheelchair accessibility clearance rules.

Carrier submittals make little sense such as location maps with new poles proposed in the middle of ponds and on footbridges. Yes…this happens.

Carrier makes the design of whatever modification staff requested look so bulky and ugly on the mockup, that they try to make it seem infeasible.

Carrier claims a strong desire to work with the community and constantly asks for meetings. Carrier then turns in plans and photo simulations noting the wrong pole locations, or unclear applications (e.g. you can’t tell if a new pole is being added next to an existing pole, or if an existing pole is being used). You will also encounter plans and photo simulations that do not match each other; and designs that are inappropriate (overly bulky boxes or antennas the size of trashcans on slim light poles).

FYI: Carriers will try to budge you in meetings to make decisions on the spot. Make sure you are comfortable making that decision then and there. If not, talk to your stakeholders first (counsel, pole owners, preservation/environmental, Planners or Public Works). Carrier reps may make veiled references at lawsuits by mentioning how their peers in “dark rooms” may have a problem with what the City/County is requesting. Remind them that the local utility may offer cost-saving LED light bulbs that may help brighten their rooms….

Carrier agrees to a design, and to conditions of approval requiring new City/County review if changes are sought after installation; but then makes changes to the site on their own accord, without review, or even claims oral permission (when none existed) to make unauthorized changes (e.g. adding larger antenna shrouds, fiber patch panel boxes, or disconnect switches).

Carrier agrees to conditions to turn off or hide indicator lights (which detract from nighttime ambiance in residential enclaves), add covers to hide bundles of cabling, and remove large stickers or decals; but then fails to do so.

Carrier constantly requests meetings or feedback on design but neglects to fully respond to issues raised previously. Always keep a running check list so you do not forget an item. If you forget, the carrier rep may try to bully you later on claiming the City/County is the cause of delays.

Carrier claims it is too hard to satisfy both Planning, Public Works, and the pole-owning agency with their different requirements. Bear in mind, that is often without basis. Though, do make sure if some of poles hold up overhead electric lines (for light rail or buses) or have other special functions, that the pole owning agencies review the designs. Especially, the placement of entry holes for conduit to be placed inside the pole (have the carrier prepare structural calcs that take into account equipment and conduit entry points).

Carrier tells you they want to work with the community, but refuses to say which carrier they are putting up antennas for. This doesn’t tend to happen much in California and may make it harder for the carrier to sue (since they may need to show a coverage/capacity gap for a given carrier’s network). Make sure to remind the carrier it’s “not really working with the community” (a phrase they often use) if City/County staff has to spend hours on the phone with residents wanting to understand the reason for apparent secrecy or why the plans and photo simulations are not accurate (e.g. design, equipment sizes, or distance between dwelling). Ideally, the name of the actual wireless carrier being served should be easily shown on the front of the project plans or permit notification.

Carrier pushes really big and ugly boxes, but pretends they are small, and act really offended when you point out the obvious. They tend to say your ordinance is illegal a lot too or doesn’t comply with 6409 (which doesn’t apply to new cell sites; just project sites with existing cell sites that were legally built).

It’s not uncommon for the carrier to ignore staff direction and submit sites to the wrong agency. Don’t let a design like this happen to you. Courtesy https://nouglytowers.wordpress.com/

Carrier may have a middle management culture that says push back against whatever the City/County asks for; even if it is reasonable.

Carrier hires a local permit expediter that you are familiar with, but as soon as something goes wrong, they shift blame to him/her and you don’t see them again. Now you are forced to repeat guidance (hang onto notes/checklists) to new reps.

Carriers subcontractors are hit and miss, with some building sites correctly and others tearing up sidewalks or topping trees. If you approve large batches of permits all at once the carrier is more likely to rush and hire new sub contractors that are more likely to build sites poorly.

Carrier gets caught not building new sites on existing non-City owned poles correctly. They responded by hinting/threatening they could build the site to “look correct” (to get the permit final) and then come back and “6409” it, in order to make it look as ugly as they want with extra equipment boxes and visible cabling. That is not allowed. A carrier can’t “6409” a site that was not built correctly (if you pay attention and call them on it).

All three neutral host carriers (I haven’t heard much about Zayo; though their initial designs appear fairly cluttered/bulky) have varying histories of adding sites without permits, building incorrectly, or sometimes just plain upsetting neighbors (e.g. topping beautiful trees to run fiber-optic cables to small cells, or telling neighbors to buzz off when they ask to view their permit).

Carrier reminded repeatedly to not put in place bumpy asphalt patches when breaking up a concrete sidewalk to add a small vault. Weeks later, elderly resident start calling City staff to indicate they tripped over bumpy asphalt.

Carrier claimed the need to increase the height of short wood light poles by 12 to 20 feet, based on GO 95 (State safety rules). In an area of the City known for beautiful and historic single-family homes with scenic views. Staff disputed this height justification. When carrier later pushed the issue within the context of Shot Clocks, staff denied about 14 sites. The next day, the carrier asked for a pause on denials and came back with a design without the height increase.

Carrier submits plans and RF safety report that has conflicting information, such as the distance between the pole and the nearest residential wall. This can result in an upset resident who feels the process is sloppy and false assurances are being made.

In Houston, a neutral host wireless carrier, apparently asked for a permit to install a new wooden pole to only hold up fiber-optic cables. They then came back and added cell antennas and equipment without telling the City (in Texas, cities/counties can charge rent to carriers being in the right-of-way, even if the City/County does not own the pole). In other cities, another neutral host carrier installed multiple new sites on sidewalks or in front of businesses, apparently without any permits.

Carrier and City discuss having carrier provide fiber-optic cable to City at poles where Small Cells are installed (for things like City public Wi-Fi), but it turns out the fiber-optic was never going to be installed back to any viable junction point and just go from the pole to the sidewalk box a few feet away. However, carrier still notes in forums that the City is being given fiber, when no such fiber is actually being provided (at all).

Carrier reminded by Planner that a certain type of review is required (e.g a specific historic preservation application) but they neglect to file in a timely manner. Months later, they contest the review not being applicable, by arguing the historic preservation commission review does not apply because the applicable historic districts only includes the buildings and not the public right-of-way (streets/sidewalks) inside the district (incorrect). Remember to indicate review is required for these types of situations in your ordinance and application forms.

What was actually approved
What the neutral host carrier built (antennas & equipment for two distinct wireless carriers), over time, without proper permits (Crown Castle for Verizon & Sprint).

Aren’t you being a bit “pointed” toward the wireless carriers?

Nope. There are many smart and talented folks in the industry that follow through on picking less-intrusive locations/designs, and on building sites “right.”

There are also examples of designs/installations akin to something put together from the parts bin at the back of a Radio Shack (e.g.wild tangles of cabling). There are also some carrier reps that create frustrations for both staff and the community, by conveying incorrect information (funny response by the City of Santa Clara: www.tinyurl.com/attsiliconvalley) to residents and/or Federal/State government leaders (example), in order to try and gut local community review and common-sense siting/design. They make it harder for the more responsible actors who don’t cut corners.

Carriers will often note the need to work with communities, but absent from those discussions seems to be the need to work on neighborhood-appropriate siting by working with both the community and the actual antenna/equipment manufacturers on well-designed and quiet systems (which is achievable).


I thought we were getting satellites and would not need towers and small cells. Not happening anytime soon. You can’t wait for Google Loon Project Balloons either.

Did you update your ordinance yet?


Can we just ban Small Cells in our really beautiful residential zones or historic districts? Not easy to do in California (especially if you have existing wooden utility poles). For some background from a wireless industry lawyer perspective (not my perspective) read this article (link).

There are two important State and Federal court cases that affirmed that a City/County can a) exercise some reasonable discretion over design/siting; b) can apply CEQA (environmental review); and b) can apply 10-year time limits to permits.

See the Palos Verdes case that is referenced in the wireless industry perspective and, and T-Mobile/Crown Castle/Extenet Systems versus City and County of San Francisco (legal docs).

In September 2016 a California (State) Appeals Court ruled in favor (article link) of San Francisco (and all California cities and counties), and upheld the right for cities/counties to exercise reasonable discretion over design (“design” being inclusive of aesthetics, equipment noise, lighting [aircraft warning/indicator lights], specific placement, streetscape plans) of wireless in the public right-of-way.

The City and County of San Francisco and the League of California Cities (which filed a friend of the court brief) were NOT arguing for the ability to outright ban cell sites (Small Cells or oDAS) in the public right-of-way; but for the ability to have reasonable discretion over location and design (e.g. new excessively tall wood poles, large cabinets next to windows, noise limits, archeological review).


Can our City/County charge rent or require a franchise?

Yes and No.

You can charge rent for attaching antennas/equipment to Small Cells on City-owned poles or structures (e.g. bus shelters, kiosks, street furniture). If your lucky enough to have City-owned fiber (or own the conduit that the fiber is placed in) you should be able to charge rent for that too (e.g. Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara).

In California, a City or County cannot charge rent or require a franchise for Small Cells in the public right-of-way (unless on City owned poles/structures); even if new equipment boxes are being proposed on the ground. This is due to State Law (California Public Utilities Code Section 7901). There may be some exceptions for Port lands and other unique districts.

If you work for a City/County outside of California then there are some important exceptions that may allow your City/County to require a franchise and/or charge rent. See Part 3.

Two FCC Commissioners have mentioned very isolated instances of cities charging what may be considered high fees as reason to propose either punishing cities or capping what rates they can charge for permits and for leases (if City owns the pole).
Article Link

But, hold on, what about franchising? We still use franchises for cable companies? 
DIVCA kinda killed it. It’s complicated. Ask your City Attorney/County Counsel. In California you cannot charge rent, just for a carrier “being in the public right of way.” You can charge rent for being on actual City property (e.g. parks) or on City-owned poles or buildings.

The lawyer or carrier rep is threatening to sue if we deny the application, but we think we have realistic standards and the design is ugly. What do we do? 
Talk your counsel. Also, consider writing up a denial letter that notes: a) your efforts to find a solution; b) the applicable community context (e.g. streetscape designations and vistas of significance noted in the City/County General Plan); and c) perhaps include as an attachment to the denial letter, a photo of a well-designed Small Cell built in another community that would be viable. Take control of the narrative.

What is the difference between AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon Wireless; and these other companies like Crown Castle (they bought NextG/Newpath), Extenet Systems, and Mobilitie? 
The last three are sometimes referred to as Neutral Host Carriers, that often put up Small Cells, and Not So Small Cells, on poles to serve the networks of the first four carriers (which are referred to as Tier 1 PCS carriers — PCS stands for Personal Communications Services).

A fiber-optic provider, Zayo, also appears interested in developing Small Cells to serve the 4 Tier 1 PCS Carriers. The initial designs (images) seem fairly poorly designed with exposed cabling, bulky cabinets that should be longer and narrower, and panel antennas instead of slim radomes.

Neutral Host Carriers like to tell City/County folks they are different (and somehow less subject to City regs, in so many words) than Tier 1 carriers, because they are “CLEC,” transport provider, carrier’s carrier, or flux capacitor interlocutor (just kidding). Or, they will say they are not a wireless carrier, “but just transporting signal.”

Mobilitie has been using various names like “the Utility Pole Authority” and “CA Transmission Network” or “Interstate Transport and Broadband” to make themselves sound like either a general electric utility or something other than wireless.

It’s all wireless in the “cell phone sense” for the immediate future…..

AT&T’s Project AirGig would attach antennas onto power lines to send data signals around the wires, instead of through them. From CNET.com. In California the antennas/dishes would need to be at least 8 feet above electrical lines. Plus given the poor state of many Joint Poles, the poles would need to be replaced. This approach is considered “wireless fiber” (instead of new high speed fiber optic “wires” directly to the home/business. It has certain limits such as capacity and may not be subject to the same State rules on consumer rate protection or universal service (serving both rich and poor/rural neighborhoods) that apply to wireline systems. When you see round dishes think of it as more of a focused beam of information being sent to another dish somewhere else (usually to serve internet access directly to another site/customer), and NOT to send a signal out to hundreds of cell phones nearby.

There are other wireless providers coming on the scene like Google/Webpass/Artemis/Starry (that are mostly focused on antennas for in-building broadband to compete with the cable company).

There are also Internet Of Things (IOT) Providers (e.g. Sigfox) that seek low power networks (smaller systems) to serve devices, like sensors, instead of cell phones. Example of a separate trial long-range IOT network (link).

Some aspects of what these “other” wireless providers are proposing may fall into this interesting regulatory challenge of proposing commercial neighborhood-serving small low-power antennas/dishes on residential buildings (where most City ordinances disfavor or prohibit commercial neighborhood-serving wireless facilities), but that are not quite OTARD-compliant (which are typically exempt from most local permitting, by the FCC, except based on historic preservation or safety issues).

It should be noted that these systems are typically far less intrusive, in terms of power output, and antenna/equipment size; as compared to the systems used for Tier 1 PCS (the four main wireless carriers).

It’s already hard enough trying to deal with the 150 day shot clock in terms of getting a comment letter out in about 20–30 days and then needing 20–30 days to notify neighbors and hold a public hearing. Now the carrier is trying to argue that putting antennas on an existing pole should be subject to a 90 day shot clock, as a collocation. What do we do?

Talk to your counsel. Most City Attorneys disagree with this recent push by Verizon/Crown (thus far) which have recently tried to argue that if there is an existing building or utility pole (without existing antennas) that it counts as a collocation and is eligible for the 90 day shot clock. It appears they are cherry picking various FCC Orders, but ignoring a 2009 FCC Order on Shot Clocks that explicitly said the 90 day clock applies to more limited instances.

Nonetheless, if your City/County requires public hearings (with advanced mailed notification to property owners), you have a timing challenge. Especially if you require both a design review public hearing and a formal Planning Commission public hearing.

If the carrier submits a design that is both incomplete and poorly designed and then re-submits a complete application but with a poor design, you’ll need to tell the carrier, within 10 days, in writing that the design is not viable and you’ve scheduled a public hearing within 4 weeks to deny the application. The carrier can VOLUNTARILY offer to extend the shot clock, if they want to avoid a denial. You can’t demand that they do so.

But my residents will get really upset about cell antennas in residential neighborhoods. Can we do anything? Well you could work to change CPUC Section 7901 (State Law) by educating State Assembly members and State Senators about how an outdated law on telegraph lines (background article) is essentially being used by the wireless industry to sometimes try to force bulky noisy cabinets within a few feet of bedroom windows (the two court rulings that sided with cities/counties focused on how the cell site would affect the view up and down the street segment and not necessarily the view from adjacent bedroom windows).

In the meantime, work to articulate less-intrusive siting, design (so it doesn’t look like a cell tower to most folks) and placement standards (such as focusing on arterial and collector roads instead of poles right in front of a house). Empower your Planners and Public Works folks to demand better.

Encourage/require carriers to pursue arterial or collector road locations first instead of along two-lane residential streets. Look to your General Plan Circulation Element for metrics to consider using.

Work toward better design (aesthetics/noise/proximity to vistas and existing trees). Articulate a vision that shows you give a darn.

In the long term, if you really want to be bold, come up with a program to encourage residents to create an assessment district (yes, more property taxes), combined with a surcharge on electric bills (San Diego did this) and some general fund monies to underground utility poles; especially in neighborhoods with few rooftop-mounted cell sites nearby (most likely candidates for Small Cells other than downtowns). Then, you could have more discretion over the placement of better designed Small Cells on City owned steel light poles.

I’m a Planner/Public Works Engineer. My City Attorney (or County Counsel) is awesome, but she/he said they are too busy to write an ordinance.

Consider reviewing the ordinance and application forms noted on Section 3 and suggestion possible ways to adapt those ordinances to your City/County. Why reinvent, when you can adapt and evolve.

I’m a State Assembly Member or State Senator. How do I encourage wireless deployment at the State level in a common-sense manner, but not suffer a backlash?

If the legislature wishes to assist in this endeavor they should consider basic legislation to remove unnecessary impediments and reduce clutter on Small Cells, by mandating that investor-owned utilities allow smart wireless metering and hidden disconnect switches; thereby reducing clutter in the form of more boxes on sidewalks/poles. Simple measures like this can help cities and counties and wireless carriers find smarter solutions that balance beautiful neighborhoods and robust wireless coverage.

Furthermore, the legislature should work with the police & fire first-responder community, and State agencies and independent districts (e.g. community colleges and water districts) to find smarter siting locations and designs for “police and fire 5G wireless” (FirstNet); so that we can avoid the recent LA-RICS debacle (tall steel towers next to fire stations in LA County).

In my town the residential building lots/parcels run to the centerline of the street (not the back of the sidewalk or curb) with an easement for the public right-of-way. Can we say no to Small Cells on that basis?Probably not. Ask your counsel.

In our town some of the residential neighborhoods feature wooden utility poles that are literally running through peoples backyards, without an alley separating their yard from the back yard of the home to the rear. Will wireless carriers try to enter peoples backyards to add Small Cells on these utility poles?

It’s possible. I would recommend either banning Small Cells in those locations (in writing, in your ordinance, for everyone to see), or, at a minimum prohibit any Small Cells in those locations if they include noise-generating equipment (e.g. cooling fans for some types of computers known as radio heads).

Why do we see such confusing or low-quality submittals/installations? Heck, my Planners work with non-profit groups that give us better quality submittals!

Here’s the thing; there are often four layers of subcontractors between you and the actual brand name wireless carrier. These subs often get paid on pay points, like when they turn in an application; but not based on the quality of the application. So you often have to wade through poor quality submittals. If you keep seeing this (e.g. false RF reports, plans and photo simulations that are deceptive or inconsistent) do not be afraid to call them out on it and to tell the actual “brand name” wireless carrier representative.

When permits get approved in bulk the carriers race to hire contractors. It’s not uncommon to see 4 of 5 contractors do a great job and the 5th one tearing up sidewalks, putting in sloppy wiring designs, and failing to follow through on conditions of approval (e.g. proper painting of system to blend in with pole or backdrop). Spot check their work !

Oh, and remember the shot clock (time limit before auto approval) can be “paused” if the application is incomplete and you tell the carrier why it is incomplete in a timely manner (30 days for first submittal and 10 days for re-submittal). The shot clock cannot be paused because the submittal is complete but the design is not viable/appropriate/code-complying. See Section 3 for more information.

If three of four wireless carriers in my area have good service and fast data, isn’t that enough to deny other carriers?

Nope. Did you update your ordinance yet?

Are these examples common throughout California or is this only stuff the author dealt with
Yes, these issues occur in both rural counties and big cities.

What is the difference between Small Cells and Distributed Antenna Systems?

They are essentially the same with respect to the use of antennas, cabling, and equipment to provide wireless coverage. However, Small Cells are intended to function more as miniature versions of independent free-standing cell towers.

Outdoor Distributed Antenna Systems (also referred to as “DAS” or “oDAS”) are more common in California; and typically feature small antenna and cabinets mounted on multiple poles in a given neighborhood that all work together to provide coverage/capacity. I tend to refer to ugly/bulky systems as “oDAS XL.”

If you are an RF engineer or wireless carrier reading this, please bear in mind this is not meant to be a technical standards discussion…

What are Indoor Small Cells? 
Notice how the glass in those shiny new buildings seems to insulate better? That “low-e” glass also blocks outdoor cell site signals from reaching into the building. Carriers will add small antennas (indoor Small Cells, indoor Distributed Antenna Systems, or “iDAS”), akin to Wi-Fi antennas inside the building. Sometimes they will connect the system via fiber optic cables to their data center. Other times they will place a small donor antenna or microwave dish (Verizon sometimes calls it a radio packet antenna for reasons I do not understand) on the roof to “talk” to the nearest macro cell site. Usually these aren’t an issue as long as they comply with historic preservation rules on placement. Make sure the permit clearly notes this is for an indoor-serving on-site iDAS system only. Don’t give it collocation status unnecessarily.

Indoor Small Cell (akin to Wi-Fi antennas, but serving cell phones)

This is giving me a headache. 
True. Did you update your ordinance yet?

Should I hold a study session for my Historic Preservation/Planning Commission, Design Review Board and City Counsel?

Yes, you should. Heck, invite the public and the wireless carriers to the initial session and then hold a closed-door session for your counsel to provide legal advice afterwards.

What kind of rent should we charge for Small Cells on City owned poles?

I’m not an appraiser. Find an expert.

My sincere “guesstimate” is to figure out the average yearly lease for a rooftop “macro” cell site in your area and divide it by 12 (rough approximation of the number of Small Cells needed to provide similar coverage/capacity as a single “prime” rooftop macro site). So in a dense urban area, $4K a year seems fair, assuming the systems are small and there is no additional equipment on the ground next to the pole (charge more for that).

I’m not a fan of just depending on the carrier to report gross revenues and provide a percentage. Especially if the company isn’t publicly traded and subject to outside audits.

Will 4G/5G replace the cable company for broadband? 
Sorta, but actually not really. A single fiber optic “strand” (cable) has enough capacity as the entire wireless spectrum. You can’t really serve a neighborhood with just “cellular” antennas to provide robust broadband, so that multiple folks can stream Netflix at high resolution in the house. Carriers are trying to get there, but there are limits, and the musing is that to do so would require thousands of antennas 150 feet from every residence. At that point, your not really saving money compared to running fiber to the home/business.

Is the cable company trying to become a wireless carrier too?

Sorta. It’s complicated. Comcast and Charter (cable companies) are activating agreements with Verizon to use their network but under the cable companie’s name/brand (mobile virtual network operator, or “MVNO”). You will likely see more cable companies attaching cable strand Wi-Fi antennas/modems on above-ground wires between wooden utility poles. At one time, a proposed State law sought to exempt these antennas from any local review.

This would’t be a concern except the bill seemed poorly written in that it attempted to unfairly discriminate between Wi-Fi (using unlicensed spectrum) and Tier 1 PCS (cellular, using licensed spectrum). Plus more powerful systems may require boxes on the nearby pole (meters/disconnect/battery back up cabinets) and some have needless flashing lights.

Why do wireless carriers keep talking about 911 access when we already have darn good call coverage?

It’s part of their PR playbook. They’ll still bring it up even when there is a macro site and another small cell site within a few dozen yards of each other. Ignore it. Focus on crafting good policy.

What is FirstNet and should I care?

Good question. After 9/11 Congress mandated a first responder public safety network that was capable of advanced voice and data services. The standards sought to emulate those of 4G cellular networks. This creates a challenge of more antennas, closer to residential neighborhoods, instead of just using “whip” antennas on remote hilltop sites, for example. In LA County, the proposal to add tall steel monopoles at fire stations in residential neighborhoods met with substantial resistance. It remains to be seen if the State of California opts out and builds its own system or aligns with a Federal system.

If the Federal authority (part of NTIA under Department of Commerce) chooses to use a sort of virtual private network model running on the same towers as a carrier like AT&T Mobility or Verizon; you may see increased pressure by the carrier, with the FirstNet contract, to build more sites or expand existing sites (more antennas or computer cabinets at an existing cell site).

Ideally, the State will work with State agencies (e.g. Caltrans) and independent districts (e.g. community college districts) to create more flexible siting for FirstNet systems so there is less pressure to put up new tall monopoles in residential or historic neighborhoods.

Can we use the Small Cell installation to improve fire/police radio coverage?

Maybe, but it’s complicated. Talk to your Police/Fire Departments and the regional authority (e.g. groups like LA RICS) about what their needs are. In urban areas, the primary challenge nowadays tends to be indoor radio coverage (especially in parking structures) so outdoor Small Cells for Tier 1 PCS won’t help too much (fire and police radios use different signals). However, there may still be some opportunity to share fiber-optic backhaul, or put up signal boosters on the same pole as the Small Cell, for outdoor coverage.

Many police and fire agencies use their own radios (land-mobile radio or “LMR”) for voice communications, but they may also use laptops/tablets inside vehicles, with “cellular” modems running off the Tier 1 PCS networks. So Small Cells could assist with faster data speeds for those laptops, if the City is contracted with the same carrier. If not already in place, you may also want to discuss priority signal access for those modems, with the Tier 1 PCS carrier.

While my City Council is interested in wireless antennas for cellular, but they are also asking about how a local business or non-profit cannot get in-building broadband for their high-tech manufacturing, or video conferencing for health seminars. Can our ordinance or City leasing help with this issue too?

Possibly. While really high capacity/fast broadband generally means fiber-optic cable running into the building (and cellular systems cannot really provide the same capacity or reasonable costs); there is another tool to consider.

For example, a City/County could lease out existing rooftop or tower space, not just for cell antennas, but also for WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) that use small microwave dishes (the size of pie tins) to “shoot” a very narrow and focused data feed from one location with strong internet connectivity to the roof of a business a few miles away that doesn’t have adequate broadband service from the telephone or cable provider. This isn’t a massive Citywide solution, but it can be a tool especially to retain a business (read: share this with your economic development folks) or assist non-profits and affordable housing sites when it comes to reliable and affordable broadband. Side note, from a Planning perspective, these dishes can often be set back further from the roof edge than cell antennas, so you typically don’t have the same aesthetic or historic preservation concerns.

Example from Santa Cruz using fiber (wires) and microwave dishes (WISPs) to improve broadband competition, reliability, and affordability.

Tip: Ensure your City/County Real Estate Department adjusts the rates (typically lower) for WISPs instead of using the same rates for cellular. Especially since WISPs typically have very small footprints, compared to some cell sites with large roof footprints and equipment areas about the size of a shipping container.

The wireless industry attorney showed up and scared my Counsel/Board/Commission, by saying our ordinance violates Federal or State law? 
Their job is to advocate for their client. Come up with sensible rules that are fair and realistic. Provide comments on submittals that are clear and consistent within 30 days of submittal. You’ll be fine.

Carriers constantly say they will sue on things that seem pointless. Other times they will sue and get the approval judgement but never build the site. They just wanted to make a point to other municipalities. I’ve seen the lawyers “get ahead” of the carrier and threaten to sue, when the actual in-house carrier representative often wants to find a solution in the end. Sometimes the local carrier representative wants to work with you, but is being pushed by a higher up to push a bad design. Convey your intent clearly.

On the other hand, if the carrier’s attorney offers alternate code language during a code update; give it a sincere look. Ask around. Don’t dismiss it just because the carrier’s attorney bullied you in the past. As someone once mused, cities/counties do not pick their customers.

We tell the carrier information they don’t seem to like, then they hire someone who shows up unexpectedly to discuss the same issue a few weeks later. Seems like a waste of staff time. 
Yep. It happens. Take good notes and ask the new person to re-read any standards/prior correspondence before the meeting to discuss the same topic again.

We are negotiating a lease to put Small Cells on City-owned poles. The carrier wants 15 year terms and volume discounts. 
No to 15 year terms. Too long. Volume discounts (if at all) should be based on sites actually being built, not just turning in pole license applications for sites they don’t build, but get the discount for anyways.

The carrier wants us to sign a non-disclosure agreement. 
Not recommended. Ask your counsel.

But, they are claiming trade secrets! 
It’s cell antennas, not missile defense….

The carrier wants time guarantees on permit approvals for City-owned poles? 
Have they given you an accurate mockup, a viable design, complete plans, and tested underground conduit for sufficient space for fiber/power? Yeah, I thought not. No…….

We asked the carrier for a site map and they gave us locations that do not seem real, like in ponds or on footbridges. 
Yep. Welcome to the suck (I was in the Army). Sorry, there I go again…

My residents keep insisting there are more restrictive limits on this RF emissions “stuff” in Japan or Europe, is that true?

Not really…………

Public exposure standards in most European Union countries are similar to the U.S. for frequencies used by wireless carriers. Some European counties have few operators. Then again the U.S. had 7 primary operators until Sprint bought Clearwire and Nextel, and T-Mobile bought MetroPCS. Now most areas of California have 4 operators, not including WISPs and other “non-cellular” operators.

Many Small Cell sites put out actual operating RF levels that are lower than the predicted maximums, and often at about 1% of the limit for the public exposure limit (at nearby areas the public has access to) established by the FCC. Switzerland has more restrictive limits of about 1/100th (with some mitigating factors) of the FCC’s standards.

So often times the Small Cell site, in terms of typical operating condition, will tend to approach the more restrictive Swiss standards. Don’t believe me? No worries, I’m not an RF engineer anyways. The proof is in the RF testing. Request it. Don’t be shy.

The resident is claiming the antenna that just got installed near their home is making them sick. 
Check to see if the site has power. Sometimes it’s not even activated and there isn’t even power running to the antenna; and there is no glass bubble on the electric meter enclosure (still waiting for utility inspection). I’m serious. I know it sounds mean, but it happens.

Can we make the carrier add shielding or low-e glass to a neighbors house, who is worried about RF emissions? 
Nope. Can’t require it. I’ve never seen a carrier offer to do so.Though I have heard of carriers offering to install more sound-proof windows due to loud cooling fans. Or setting the fans so they turn off at night. 
Tread lightly on requirements like this (new windows) unless vetted with counsel. 
Be aware that it is not uncommon for the wireless carrier rep (even the ones that talk about their personal ties to the community) to promise something to the Planning Commission, then feign ignorance, or fail to follow through after approval.

A resident asked if we can require wireless carriers to show “fall zones” (if the pole collapses) and ban Small Cells that have a fall zone that encompasses their home or an adjacent child care center (for example). Is that possible?

Not likely. Ask your counsel. This paradigm would likely carry even less plausibility if the pole is owned by a investor-owned utility (or the SoCal or NorCal Joint Pole Associations), since the carrier could argue that pole safety (for those poles) is preempted by State (CPUC-administered) regulations. Yes, there are some rural counties that create setbacks based on fall zones, but that is generally tied to really tall (over 75 feet tall) steel lattice towers for macro systems (usually holding up dozens of antennas); and not for Small Cells.

Can we ban Small Cells next to elementary schools or child care centers?

Not if the basis is concerns over radio-frequency (RF) exposure, due to Federal law (1996 Telecommunications Act).

The carrier rep said in areas with poor reception your phone puts out more radio-frequency (RF) energy. Is that right? 
Pretty much. Your phone battery drains faster as it puts out more energy to talk to the nearest cell site.

The carrier rep said folks often get more RF exposure from the phone in their pocket or Wi-Fi router in their home than the cell site across the street. Is that correct? 
Mostly yes.

A resident said Small Cells should be banned because it may hurt birds and wildlife. 
That isn’t a basis for denial that can likely stand up in court. Though, if required based on location, certain types of aircraft warning lights (white blinking instead of red steady burning) may lead to fewer bird collisions (link).

It seems the cooling fans get noisier over time or is it just me? 
Yes, that can happen, especially in areas near the ocean where salt can settle on fan bearings and make them corrode. Carriers often don’t maintain the sites well. Better to push for systems with passive cooling, which means they have no noise generating cooling fans. This may require a large equipment cabinet. Require longer, but narrower cabinets for placements on poles.

Can’t the wireless carriers all share the same system? 
That was the promise made by carriers like NewPath and NextG (acquired by Crown Castle) years ago. It never really happened with a few exceptions such as stadiums and subway stations. 
The challenge is this. You have four separate carriers (often apt to proclaim anti-trust concerns when it comes to working together) that want their own frequency-specific computers (more boxes) near the pole holding up the antenna. Each carrier has different challenges given the spectrum (some goes through buildings better, some delivers faster data) and network loads (T-Mobile and Sprint sites typically feature fewer antennas and equipment). In other words, they don’t all need antennas in the same place. New York City is exploring neutral-host poles given the demand.

Have you updated your ordinance yet?

The carrier keeps saying they should be treated like a utility. 
Funny. In the 90’s the carriers told Congress (circa the 1996 telecom act) they don’t want to be subject to those rules (e.g. universal build out so they don’t just cherry pick neighborhoods to serve, franchise fees, consumer protection rules, reliability standards).

Bear in mind that most cities just have one traffic signal operator or electric provider. There are multiple wireless carriers with individual infrastructure, and varying CHOICES in both where (private property versus right of way) and how (design) they deploy.

If enough Small Cells get built, will this mean the large ugly steel towers/monopoles nearby will get torn down? 
Not necessarily. Some of those sites carry other antennas for private networks or antennas for police and fire radios that serve wide (few miles) areas. They can’t easily be replaced with Small Cells. Though do make sure your wireless ordinances require abandoned towers to be removed within six months, and place a ten-year time limit on permits and Conditional Use Permits.

A Planning Commissioner wants to know if we can require the carrier to comply with a lower RF limit? 
Only if the site is on a building or pole the City owns (there was an interesting case involving the City of Carlsbad on this issue). Otherwise, you cannot dictate/request lower RF emissions levels. Bear in mind that for Small Cells, the antennas are typically directional, so the resident in an apartment near the pole and on the same level as the antenna is getting more RF exposure from their cell phone or Wi-Fi access point (if they have one) than from the Small Cell.

The carrier reps seem to Planner Shop at the Planning Counter. Are they trying to slip something by me? 
Probably. Create a checklist. Be consistent. If the plans do not make sense don’t approve it. Oh, and the carrier may offer to make handwritten corrections to plans. That’s great, but often those plans (the ones with the handrwritten notes) don’t get used for the job bid or ordering of equipment, and the site gets built wrong. Demand better.

Department Managers in Planning/Public Works — Empower your staff to provide early feedback to wireless carriers in advance of actual submittals. Carriers are more willing to make changes if you let them know of a significant concern before formal submittals (and shot clock spreadsheets watched by wireless industry lawyers start moving). Be clear, though that any surprises by the carrier may warrant further review.

Sample Disclaimer: Thank you for providing an opportunity to comment. Below are code requirements/suggestions that appear to apply. Please note that further review may be required if any changes are made to the plans/exhibits, or based on any unique site-specific circumstances. No guarantee of approval, or an approval recommendation, is expressed by these comments.

If we allow antennas on City light poles aren’t we going to basically create more interference for police and fire radios? 
Not necessarily. Carriers have generally been pretty good about resolving these issues. However, when carriers launch new services there have been instances where the cell sites caused interference (e.g. AT&T 4G upgrades in Oakland a few years ago). Ask the carrier for the right network engineering contact and introduce them to your City/County radio shop. They may want to do benchmark testing to compare signal noise before and after Small Cells go up. Example: The time a hair salon interfered with a cell site and really upset the FCC (link).

Right now it does not appear Small Cells are interfering with public Wi-Fi systems mounted on outdoor locations. However, there is a concern that a push by carriers and Qualcomm to use unlicensed frequency for cellular voice/data (referred to as LTE-U) may degrade Wi-Fi (which uses unlicensed frequency). As of September 2016, the interference testing protocols are still being hammered out between carriers/Qualcomm and a Wi-Fi alliance (includes cable companies and Google).

How is Wi-Fi different from cellular antennas? 
It’s the same in the sense that it is radio-frequency energy coming out of a device. Wi-Fi typically uses very low power systems (e.g. router in your house) to send out a signal with a very limited range (often less than 150 feet). It can handle data speed and capacity really well, but because it uses “unlicensed” frequencies it can get bogged down by interference from other Wi-Fi antennas in the area. In dense areas, some wireless carriers like AT&T Mobility will put up cell antenna on rooftops in a given neighborhood and then their wireline division (folks who lay fiber-optic cables for landlines) will come and add “Wi-Fi only” antennas at the same building or nearby buildings. This helps carriers to “offload” some traffic from existing cellular networks, which have some limits (factors like physics and licensed frequencies in a given neighborhood) when it comes to data capacity for a lot of mobile device users in a small area.

I’m a City Planner, but not in California. What are some potential issues that may be relevant to my State?

9th Circuit Federal Court Map

Check with your counsel but bear in mind:

  • Your City/County/Parish may be able to charge the carrier for being in the public right-of-way, even if adding new ground-mounted boxes or poles that will not be owned by the municipality. The rates may vary based on whether the system is for a licensed carrier, or being built “on spec.”
  • The California State Appeals Court recently re-affirmed a previous FEDERAL 9th Circuit “en banc” decision that said cities/counties should have reasonable discretion over wireless in the public right-of-way (Sprint versus Palos Verdes). The 9th circuit map is above. If you are not in the 9th circuit, this may be an untested area with no clear cut State laws or court decisions. This makes it even more important to articulate a clear vision of what is considered acceptable and non-acceptable in your community; to respond to carriers within 30 days of initial submittals (and 10 days of re-submittal) and to adopt a clear ordinance.
  • You may have varying degrees of success working with your electric utility to replace wooden light (only) poles with steel poles with cabling inside (cleaner design) and a more appropriate design. You may also have varying degrees of success with using Smart Wireless Metering and Fused Systems to avoid the need for ugly meter cabinets/disconnect switches on the pole or sidewalk.

Why did you say my existing ordinance may be out of date?

Example One: Your ordinance was written in the 1990’s with a goal of encouraging collocation on (fewer) tall steel monopoles (50 to 200 feet) with antennas/dishes for multiple carriers on the same pole. So the ordinance required a minimum separation between monopoles.

With Small Cells/oDAS; your ordinance may now have the unintended effect of treating these shorter poles (including smaller attachments to existing steel/wood poles) as monopoles, and pushing the carrier to seek a more intrusive location closer to residences or historic buildings, in order to maintain the separation distance from tall-large monopoles.

Example Two: Your ordinance essentially prohibits new wireless facilities on buildings that are currently non-conforming (even if legally permitted). If it’s a general non-conformance due to building height, this may unintentionally push the carrier to avoid a taller office building (better location) and seek more sites in the public right-of-way instead; and/or rooftop-mounted sites on a shorter building where antennas are closer to upper story residences (i.e. potentially more RF exposure given the directional nature of panel antennas).

Example Three: Your ordinance language creates a 1,00 foot separation boundary between wireless facilities and any residence. This may encourage carriers to choose a larger number of Small Cells (multiple poles in a given neighborhood) in the public right-of-way, instead of a mix of smaller rooftop-mounted sites in tandem with fewer Small Cells.

Example Four: Your ordinance/staff tends to inhibit/prohibit rooftop wireless facilities on historic buildings. Even for well-designed sites using screening (walls/vent pipes) to place hidden antennas in front of existing unscreened HVAC equipment (hiding ugly equipment). This may unintentionally encourage the carrier to pursue more Small Cells in the public right-of-way; and possibly closer to residential neighborhoods.