SB 649 Challenges | Legislative Pitfalls

Senate Bill 649 is a proposed law (mostly written by AT&T, Verizon and the lobbying group, CTIA), to allow bulky and large cell sites nearly anywhere (including with refrigerator-sized cabinets on streets and sidewalks in front of homes), with no local common sense discretion on location (next to bedroom windows or on/near historic buildings), noise, lighting, design, or fiscal impacts.

The antennas on the actual pole are easy to miss, if you have these large AT&T cabinets (computers, lead-acid batteries, meters) with noisy cooling fans, on the sidewalk directly in front of your home. State Senate Bill 649 (when paired with size change exceptions by a separate Federal rule know as “6409”) will allow this on any street or sidewalk in California. The graffiti rarely gets removed, and the carrier typically refuses to allow murals or artworks, claiming the cabinet will overheat (retired engineers for same carrier will tell you the opposite).

Please note that it IS possible to build robust and competitive broadband wireless that is respectful of communities. I know this because, in a prior role I worked for multiple cities, with carriers, on hundreds of well designed wireless sites in multiple cities. It is not easy though. Getting to that point only happens when cities/counties aren’t hamstrung by State/Federal laws, and is able to work with carriers on behalf of residents and Main Streets, to push for better design and siting. SB 649 guts that ability, and is taxpayer giveaway to telcos.

Equipment Noise

Many, but not all, Small Cells feature large cabinets and noisy cooling fans to cool equipment (computers or lead-acid battery packs).

While many cities have cajoled wireless carriers to use more efficient systems that are much quieter (or turn off at night in quiet coastal residential neighborhoods). SB 649 would gut that ability.

65 decibels of fan noise by your bedroom window?

SB 649 would appear to preclude sensible noise limits (or relocation to a pole across the street) for Small Cells, even if on an existing utility pole that may only be 5 feet from a bedroom window.

Cities have seen many frustrating examples of carriers failing to resolve this issue.

In some neighborhoods, the utility poles run directly through adjoining backyards. So, imagine a contractor demanding a right to enter and put up cabinets with noisy cooling fans on the pole.

Size Limits in the bill are deceptive

A Small Cell without screening or common sense design standards.

Imagine one of these for each carrier in front of your home.

SB 649 does not take into consideration the large nature of changes allowed under a separate Federal rule known as 6409[1] that allows for major changes to cell sites as soon as they are built; especially for the type of sites that would be allowed with SB 649. This essentially makes the size limits in the bill meaningless.

For Streets & Sidewalks (the Public Right-of-Way): When a carrier utilizes (Federal) 6409 rules to modify an existing “unscreened” site (built per SB 649) on a light/utility pole (+ equipment on the ground), a carrier can immediately convert a site (and, yes we have seen substantial size increases in California) into a quasi-monopole (tall tower, with exposed antennas and large cabinets on the sidewalk), next to a house) without any local discretion.

You could end up with equipment blocking handicapped access on sidewalks (bill language is silent on these issues).

If your neighborhood has wooden poles running directly through your backyard, imagine if SB 649 is approved and a wireless contractor shows up to demand the right to enter your backyard and put up bulky & noisy cabinets and antennas on the poles.

For Private Property: Because the bill fails to mandate any reasonable attempts at stealthing (e.g. hiding equipment behind fiberglass elements such as vent pipes, fake rooftop elevator penthouses), as soon as a Small Cell is built under this law, the carrier can make substantial changes in height, bulk, and size of both equipment on the roof of a building. They could also replace noiseless equipment with noisy cooling fans.

There is no limit on the number of Small Cells allowed per property, so if each carrier puts up Small Cells, then uses 6409 (to add more antennas, generators, cabinets), you could end up with dozens of antennas on the sides of a building (or hanging in front of windows).

For example, three cabinets the size of small briefcases can be replaced with large cabinets the size of refrigerators. Or, add 10 feet in height to the pole.

One antenna, the size of a wastebasket, could be replaced with multiple panel antennas (each the size of a parking meter) and unsightly tangles of wires and brackets.

If the original design allowed an electrical meter box on the ground, then the carrier can come back (using Federal 6409) and add battery cabinets (the size of a fridge) or diesel generator[2] without regard for whether the location would be a danger to pedestrians or drivers backing out of driveways.

No State guidance for future road widening or removing wooden poles (“undergrounding”) that may be effectively blocked by recently installed Small Cells on wooden utility poles.

If a standard wooden light pole features overhead electrical wires and a Small Cell, would it block investments in placing electrical wires underground and new poles such as these?

If a standard wooden light pole features overhead electrical wires and a Small Cell, would it block investments in placing electrical wires underground and new poles such as these?

The bill is silent as to what happens if a Small Cell is located on wooden utility poles in the public right-of-way (along streets/sidewalks) and the City plans to widen the road, add/widen sidewalks or bicycle lanes, or remove wooden utility poles, then replace them with better designed decorative poles and and place overhead wires underground.

Would the bill require Cities to leave that infrastructure in place, blocking investments, or would the City have to subsidize the substantial costs of relocation?

Would each relocation now require State involvement, if a single Small Cell is no longer considered a “municipal affair.”[3]

Would the City be prohibited from replacing standard light poles with decorative fixtures in a main street setting, if some of the standard light poles have wireless attachments?

Lastly, can a carrier place a ground-mounted cabinet in a location that would impair access for the disabled (as some carriers often propose in initial plan submittals) persons in wheelchairs?

It appears Mobilitie (building a network for Sprint), put up a tall microwave backhaul pole without any building permits from the local jurisdiction. Not only is this a highly intrusive model (imagine this in front of your home), but it’s placement in the (rent-free) public right of way (still in private land) so close to a roadway raises concerns. Video link

Bill fails to provide guidance for locations in or near historic districts and historic buildings, and may violate CEQA

Would cities have to allow more antenna mounts like this on a historic building, instead of up on the roof hidden in a fake vent pipe?

By removing any screening requirements and failing to account for the somewhat large changes allowed by a Federal rule known as “6409” the bill does not address concerns over facilities that could impair a historic district or historic building, which may conflict with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
This could include attaching antennas (as some carriers have done) to the decorative masonry of a historic building, or cable trays running down the primary face (façade) of a historic building in a manner that would impair the building.

A true (well-designed) Small Cell design like this in a historic area is only possible because of realistic discretion by a community over its poles.
A true (well-designed) Small Cell design like this in a residential area is only possible because of realistic discretion by a community over its poles. In this case the City had the carrier come up with brackets to use existing signs on the pole to hide the two (2) equipment cabinets (Ericsson mRRUs) and specifically designed a slim antenna shroud. SB 649 would let carriers do whatever they want, which would generally be noisier, bulkier, and uglier.
Would the law preclude City/County from requiring better designs & cable management (which is possible, if a community requires it)? For instance, in many cities, the cabling and arms have to be shrouded and painted to match the pole.

Quality of Life Challenges in Mixed-Use Residential Buildings

Since many commercial zones (as referenced in the bill) contain residences (mixed-use), the bill appears silent with respect to what would seem like common sense areas city planners work to avoid.

For instance, for rooftop mounted antennas, telling the carrier to move the 14-inch wide equipment cable tray or caged access ladders coming down the side of the building (connecting antennas to equipment rooms at ground level) so it is not running directly over the only apartment window of an elderly person (this has happened).

Or, avoiding placement of antennas and equipment on a roof area where it would effectively remove a roof deck used by rent-controlled residents without other outdoor areas to enjoy.

Or, placing limits on equipment fan or backup generator (often tested once a week for 20 minutes) noise that may bother residents or an adjacent library or day care center.

Or, for building mounted antennas, requiring the carrier to place equipment and antennas in mostly hidden locations on the roof, instead of antennas mounted on the front of a building with bundles of wiring and exposed brackets.

Or, instances where the small business tenant on the ground floor is theatened with eviction if they do not give up part of their commercial space to make room for wireless equipment cabinets (sometimes the size of 2 office cubicles or a small shipping container). Yes, this has happened. City Planners would loose the opportunity to work with all parties to find better locations and avoid displacement.

Lastly, because the bill does not address “6409” (Federal rule on changes to expand existing sites) it would appear to allow a carrier to add a diesel generator without any discretion over placement next to, for example, a bedroom window on an adjacent building.

Kills Jobs & Innovation

An Ericsson integrated light pole with antennas & equipment hidden inside. With SB 649, why would carriers invest in these slim and quiet pole systems when they can place bulky antennas and equipment on the sidewalk instead?

This bill would negate the investments made by many local and international manufacturers of integrated poles (with antennas and equipment tastefully hidden inside), since carriers would be able to put up large exposed equipment and antennas on any pole.

An inappropriately designed (Not so Small) Small Cell proposed on a nicely landscaped entry street in South Orange County (Lake Forest).

Small Cells should not be so large that they seem like they are being placed nearly rent free in the public right-of-way, in order to avoid leasing space on a church, for example, to place a cell site (that can be hidden from view).

SB 649 would remove the ability to consider alternative designs (e.g. different locations, hiding equipment behind existing monument signage or landscaping, or underground watertight cabinets — yes, they do exist).

What was proposed by the carrier
What was actually built. If you look closely you will see nylon straps holding the system together.

Block/inhibit Smart City projects

This bill would appear to limit the ability of a City to use sensible pricing strategies to encourage multi-carrier systems (one pole and set of antennas carrying signals for multiple carriers) as is being fielded in New York City.
In many California downtowns, the limited number of poles may not be sufficient at a given intersection to meet the demands (and equipment bulk) of competing carriers, if one carrier demands multiple poles for use.

This bill would appear to allow a single carrier to squat and hold multiple poles at an intersection (some carriers have actually tried this in some denser urban areas); thereby reducing competition.

The bill appears to offer no ability for a City to preclude/manage the use of a pole by a commercial carrier, in order to reserve space on the pole for City public Wi-Fi antennas or smart sensors (e.g. Internet of Things); such as sensors to help buses move through intersections faster.

By mandating revenues for City owned poles, this law may:

a) inhibit more cities from acquiring light poles from the investor-owned utility (e.g. So Cal Edison), as Huntington Beach and Laguna Niguel have done. This has ultimately assisted with well-designed commercial broadband siting as well.

b) result in a taxpayer subsidy to (well-financed) commercial wireless carriers because of the accelerated wear and tear on not only the pole, but also conduit and pull boxes (many get damaged during deployments by commercial carrier contractors) for power and fiber cables serving the poles.

c) Deny funding for Smart City projects, such as those noted above, by limiting fair revenue models on behalf of taxpayers. Cities like New York and SF charge 3k to 4k per pole per year. Smaller cities charge about 1K-2k a year per pole. SB 649 would mandate rates of about $20 bucks a year, which won’t even cover the cost of increased wear and tear on City owned poles. In essence it is a massive subsidy by local taxpayers, and does not improve the type of broadband kids use to do their homework or adults use to apply for jobs online (in-building broadband).

Article Link: Handcuffing cities to help telecom giants

Aircraft warning lights on poles in residential areas

Would a carrier be able to use SB 649 to replace a 30-foot tall standard light pole with a 120-foot pole? Would the pole also require blinking aircraft warning lights?

This law would appear to allow a carrier to propose replacing an existing 30-foot tall utility pole within one that is 120-foot tall.

Mobilitie (no relation to AT&T Mobility) has frustrated many California Cities/Counties with “optional” 120 foot poles on sidewalks or road shoulders, sometimes next to homes or in downtowns.

These 120 foot tall poles are being proposed in order to deviate (hence: “optional”) from normal broadband deployment for Small Cells that uses fiber backhaul [wires from the antennas on a pole running back to a data center], by instead using microwave dishes to piggyback signals from Small Cells on a shorter pole nearby, then up to the 120-foot tall pole “motherships,” and ultimately back to the data center.

Would a carrier be able to build 120-foot poles in front of your driveway by replacing a 30 foot standard light pole? Would this height and location require aircraft warning lights? A new entrant “Mobilitie” (no relation to AT&T Mobility) has been proposing a very intrusive model of using these 120 foot tall “motherships” to connect far away data centers for a carrier (mostly Sprint) to small cells on shorter poles nearby. This is a far more intrusive model of “backhaul” than when other companies connect small cells on shorter light/utility poles back to data centers using fiber optic cables (fiber backhaul) with wires running from each small cell under City streets or along existing utility lines. Mobilitie has proposed dozens of these poles, in rent-free locations along City streets and sidewalks, including in residential areas throughout California. Imagine one of these placed without any notification in your front yard….

In many rural areas (especially near farms with periodic crop dusting), taller poles, as low as 60 feet may require blinking red aircraft warning. This could harm rural character where folks value the absence of such lighting.


How Mobilitie’s CEO (the folks proposing 120 foot poles in front yards and on downtown sidewalks) apparently sees communities….

Blinking Lights and Advertising Stickers

City staff must often remind carriers to cover flashing indicator lights that may only be a few feet from a bedroom window.

This bill would appear to prohibit a City from adding conditions such as requiring decals and advertising logos to be removed, covering over unnecessary indicator lights, and painting equipment or cables to match the pole.

Even with conditions, City Planners often see carriers fail to abide by such conditions and build anyways, then threaten litigation when cited.

Street Maintenance Challenges

It takes a lot of wires to go wireless. Including electric and fiber-optic cables. Would the bill force cities to accept interruption to City streets in such a manner? This has happened time and time again with wireless carriers in California, where streets and sidewalks are ripped up to run power or fiber cables to a nearby pole. Would SB 649 prohibit cities from stopping this sort of poor treatment of its streets and sidewalks?

It is not uncommon for a carrier to trench for fiber optic cable from a pole to a manhole in the middle of the street or a nearby sidewalk vault, and then replace decorative sidewalks or concrete with large and bumpy patches of asphalt (even when prior agreed upon conditions require like for like replacement).

It is not clear if the bill would prohibit cities from requiring adequate restoration of the street or sidewalk.

It is not clear if the bill would allow carriers to “top” trees which can destroy some species, in order to (haphazardly) make room for pole changes or new wires being run. This has been an issue in many cities with carriers being cited .

Pole Safety

The CPUC and investor owned utilities have expressed concerns with unsafe practices by wireless carriers. Large settlements were paid out after the 2007 Malibu fires which appear to have been caused by overloading poles with too much equipment. It is not uncommon to see wireless facilities that still violate basic safety standards (General Order 95 — CPUC).

The CPUC has indicated a City/County with unique issues can have some limited review of pole safety. This bill would appear to preclude any such discussion, or even the ability to ask for the safety reports for a pole that may not be capable of handling the load (especially in high wind and/or unstable soil areas).

How to find your State Assembly member or State Senator (and share your concerns):

The State can assist with broadband design by:

1. Tabling this legislation as the FCC undergoes its own rulemaking, and encouraging the use of either regional working groups, or re-review in one year.

This bill would essentially allow carriers to cancel leases for rooftop mounted antennas (such as hidden on the roof of a church), and put up new cell sites, that look like quasi-monopoles in front of homes, essentially rent-free.

This would represents a huge step backward in smarter wireless siting that uses a blended approach of rooftop sites (instead of the old ugly steel monopole towers we remember from the 90s) paired with Small Cells that are actually small and quiet to fill in gaps where needed.

2. Mandating that investor-owned utilities allow wireless smart metering. This would reduce the need to place a meter cabinet (with glass bubble) on narrow sidewalks and reduce challenges associated with design and Federal 6409 changes (see above).

3. Establishing a clearinghouse of best practices, model ordinances (e.g. those used in San Diego, Palos Verdes, or San Francisco for the public right-of-way), and leasing templates to assist smaller communities that may not have had contended with Small Cells, particularly in the public right-of-way. Examples of well-designed Small Cells.

4.Encouraging State agencies and independent districts to more proactively work with neighboring cities and counties to host wireless infrastructure. Often, these locations are more appropriate siting areas. Though the level of engagement and receptivity by these State/independent agencies varies greatly.

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 about 15 few feet from bedroom bay windows (for a photo, see images below)
Speech video:

A bulky and noisy (cooling fans) Not so Small — Small Cell (Crown Castle for Verizon Wireless) about 15 feet from a home

[1] Section 6409 of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act, as further clarified in a 2014 FCC Rule.

[2] More likely as AT&T seeks to abandon copper telephone lines (a failed attempt by the legislature in 2016) in Northern California, and replace much of the system with wireless local loop (antenna on home talking to a tower nearby to substitute for landlines), which may necessitate backup diesel generators in case of power outages.

[3] The reference to “municipal affair” is inherently incorrect as it was originally meant to refer to how a City/County conducts its business, such as payroll or programming of events at the local park.

City Planner/Senior Analyst. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area.