If you’ve ever wondered why it can take a while for web pages and other information to load on your smartphone, look around. All those other folks looking down at their phones are probably wondering the same thing, and they’re all putting a demand on the cellular network as do the data-hungry apps that we use.
It’s not an issue of coverage as much as one of capacity, which is why telecommunication companies, such as Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, are beefing up their networks with antenna installations called “small cells” that can fill in gaps and shadows but also add capacity where demand is highest.
The small cells, about the size of a small microwave oven or large briefcase, typically are placed on existing utility or light poles to serve more customers but with less range than traditional cell towers. One example of their use: About 40 to 60 such antennas are necessary to serve the smartphone-toting fans taking selfies at stadiums like Safeco Field and CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
But it’s the use of those utility poles, which typically are owned by cities and public utility districts, that has complicated the roll out of small-cell antennas.
The telecom companies have complained that they’re having to deal with myriad permitting regulations, long waits and unreasonable fees when they seek to install small cell antennas on poles owned by cities, towns and public utility districts.
“The process has become a roadblock,” said Alden Alo, Comcast’s regional director for network engineering, during a recent meeting with The Herald Editorial Board.
And what’s slowing down your Facebook feed could soon slow the state’s economy, he and others are warning.
In coming years telecoms will begin expanding 5G mobile networks, the next generation of data transmission. The telecoms’ investments in expansion are going to be made where it’s easiest and most economical to proceed, said Peter Summerville, senior communications manager for Bellevue-based T-Mobile.
Earlier this year, legislation in the state Senate, SB 5711, sought to streamline the process by setting an annual fee of up to $500 for small-cell antennas, require cities and towns to authorize installation on municipal poles in rights of way or on other structures, make similar requirements of public utility districts and require permits be issued within 90 days of application.
The legislation, proposed by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has bipartisan support, notably from co-sponsors Sens. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, and Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby.
While supportive of the goals of expanding 5G cellular networks and adding capacity, particularly within cities and in densely populated neighborhoods, many cities are balking at the legislation, concerned that it would remove their ability to control the rights of way in their cities.
Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, earlier in March, wrote Sen. Hobbs with Everett’s objections to the legislation, saying it would eliminate cities’ authority to manage and be fairly compensated for a taxpayer-supported resource.
Among the restrictions in the bill, for example, cities could object to an antenna on aesthetic grounds only in historic districts.
Stephanson, instead, in his letter to Hobbs, endorsed an amendment to the legislation by Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, that would require cities and towns to adopt by next year ordinances that provide for a small-cell antenna permitting process, exempted from land-use reviews beyond the state environmental policy act, and would include timelines and a fee schedule.
The legislation, passed by the Senate’s Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee, moved no further than the rules committee in mid-March but could still be revived.
There is a risk that cities and utility districts that are slow to provide permits for small-cell antennas will allow 5G expansion to be diverted to states and regions that are more welcoming of the technology. And this is about more than smartphone apps, as our economy and our daily lives become more dependant on high-speed telecommunications to support jobs, transportation, retail business and even medical care.
Steve Forbes, in a recent commentary for Fox News’ website, compares the expansion of 5G wireless networks to the construction of the nation’s system of Interstate highways and the connectivity that interstates brought.
But there’s also a risk in allowing unfettered access to public rights of way. Cities have a responsibility to manage those rights of way in the public’s interest.
A compromise will have to provide more predictability and quicker consideration and approval of permits for telecom companies, yet preserve the ability of cities and utility districts to protect public resources and interests.