California Senate Bill 649 | The Problem with Not-So-Small Small Cells

Imagine if a company you never heard of showed up one day and placed an antenna on a street light near your house or even right next to your window, with several bulky cabinets, lead acid batteries, noisy cooling fans, and untidy cabling.

A “Small Cell” with noisy cooling fans in Oakland, California. Under Senate Bill 649, this could be placed on the sidewalk right in front of your home, even if there are no wooden poles (holding up the antennas) in your neighborhood. The large cabinets include lead acid batteries for backup power, computer racks, electric meters and more.

If Senate Bill 649 passes through the State Capitol, that may become a reality. The bill would eliminate many types common sense local review to protect neighborhood character when wireless carriers propose equipment and antennas along streets, sidewalks, or on poles near your house.

Wireless carriers argue that they need these measures to meet the growing consumer demand for data capacity, but these same consumers are also residents of communities who experience the negative externalities associated with haphazard and poorly-planned wireless deployments. Since residents are not able to directly negotiate with wireless carriers, they pay taxes and rely on localities to represent them, which isalso a manifestation of market demand where no other means exists to influence the architecture and design of their physical surroundings. This bill is simply not necessary to unleash “5G” connectivity because it is possible for wireless carriers to work constructively with California cities and counties to build “Small Cells” that are actually small, quiet, and respectful of their surroundings. In fact, cities up and down the State already allow for wireless carriers to install Small Cells on City-owned poles and utility poles that are small, quiet, and well-designed. Whether it’s cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, or even historic residential neighborhoods in San Francisco like Telegraph Hill.

Yet, the incoherent and inconsistent language of SB 649 would represent the folly of allowing Sacramento politicians to dictate what gets built in your neighborhood with extreme legal overreach on local review and burden taxpayers with costs of protracted court battles that are likely to follow. SB 649 removes nearly all common-sense input by neighbors and allows for designs that look like something put together using the parts bin at the back of a Radio Shack (bundles of wiring, large industrial type brackets, carrier logos, etc.).

In many cities, carriers have placed Small Cell antennas in hidden locations such as atop bus stops. WIth SB 649, carriers can simply put up exposed cabinets, antennas, and large mounting brackets, nearly anywhere with little in the way of respecting neighborhood design.

While this legislation is being carried by State Senator Ben Hueso of Imperial and (southeastern) San Diego Counties, the real sponsors are well-financed lobbyists. State Senator Mike McGuire (Santa Rosa), as a committee chair, has tried to make some positive changes, such as exempting historic districts from the bill, but the last-minute changes by lobbyists have made this bill confusing even to City Attorneys that focus just on telecommunications issues. The lobbyists also neglected to mention that under a separate Federal rule known as “6409” the carrier could come back the day after a smaller site is approved and add a 10-foot height extension or more antennas, each the size of parking meter, or more fridge-sized cabinets on the ground next to the pole (including backup diesel generators).

Even now, it is not clear if the bill would allow a carrier to replace a 25-foot tall steel street light pole with a 120-foot tall pole (as one carrier has been proposing) on a downtown sidewalk or next to a home. In some rural residential areas adding antennas or pole extensions above utility poles, as low as 55 feet may require blinking aircraft warning lights. Plus, with SB 649, instead of allowing cities to encourage competition by balancing how our streets are used by different types of utilities, the bill would allow a single wireless carrier to grab all the City-owned (read: local taxpayer-owned) poles at a given intersection, with bargain lease rates of $100 a year. Many cities currently use the annual $1,500 to $4,000 they charge per pole to pay for things like free public Wi-Fi, upgrades to safer and brighter LED street lighting, or other public benefits. SB 649 would gut those sources.

You wouldn’t walk down the street with a boombox duct taped to a StarTac flip phone and microwave dish, just to get great connectivity and your music together. Instead, folks in California, like at Apple, merged technology and design to unleash connectivity and functionality in an attractive package. SB 649, with language folks cannot even understand, would handcuff cities and counties from proposing even minimal design improvements using off-the-shelf tools. Or preferably, installing new street light poles with Small Cells completely hidden inside. SB 649 doesn’t belong in a State that should be on the leading edge of design and connectivity.

What the wireless industry considers a Small Cell, in Oakland, California. Which would you rather have on your block? This design, or the one below, representing the importance of common sense design and noise review at the local level?

Omar Masry, AICP, is a City Planner who lives in Oakland, and recently testified on behalf of the American Planning Association before the State Senate in opposition to SB 649.

Irena Stevens, MS, is PhD Candidate in a telecommunications program who writes about wireless engineering, economics, business strategy, and policy.

These comments do not represent official positions of the organizations with which we are affiliated.

An actual well-designed Small Cell in San Francisco. The cabinets do not generate any noise and are partially hidden by the road signage. If SB 649 passes, carriers could put up designs much larger, uglier, and noisier with no limits on whether the cabinets would block the view from your bedroom window, or if sidewalk-mounted cabinets would be placed next to your driveway.
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