In Edmonds, ‘small cell’ deployment permit becomes a big deal

The City Council has allowed new cellular equipment under an ordinance that regulates conditions.

EDMONDS — Under mounting pressure, the city of Edmonds has taken the first step in developing policy that would help protect the city’s interests as cellular service providers introduce more equipment into the city.

“Regarding this vote that we’re being asked to make tonight, I keep coming back to — and it’s been stated by others — we’re backed into a corner on this one,” Councilmember Laura Johnson said Tuesday night. “I can protest with a no vote or abstaining, but the city is at risk for a lawsuit, and we risk not having the financial protection. I can do the suggested yes vote but it still has the appearances of support.”

No local government has the authority to prohibit or “effectively prohibit” the provision of telecommunications services, according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but the master permit will allow the city to have some leverage in the placement and terms of “small cell” deployment in the city.

The Edmonds City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to pass an ordinance for Mayor Mike Nelson to execute a non-exclusive master permit with New Cingular Wireless — also known as AT&T — for the placement of small cell in the city’s right-of-way. Small cell typically includes an antenna and accessories that enhance cellular and data coverage in an area where service already exists.

“AT&T’s priority is to provide stable, consistent connections to our customers and we’re constantly assessing and upgrading our network to respond to the tremendous increase in demand for mobile data. Small wireless facilities are key to providing additional coverage and capacity to AT&T’s network in areas with high demand for wireless data,” Wireless Policy Group representative Gregg Bush said on behalf of AT&T during public comment.

A “no” vote would not have prevented small cell from coming to Edmonds.

The master permit for New Cingular Wireless sets terms that aim to protect the city’s interests for a five-year term. The permit states that AT&T assumes risk of damages, provides the city comprehensive indemnity and includes a commercial general liability insurance policy. The city attorney’s office has been working with city staff to negotiate the terms of the master permit for over a year.

City councilmembers Vivian Olson and Diane Buckshnis both said they are concerned with small cell’s potential impact on aesthetics, something that is not specifically outlined in the language of the master permit.

Chapter 20, section 50 of the Edmonds City Code — governing wireless communication facilities — includes protections for residential areas, aesthetics, environmentally sensitive areas, historically significant locations, flight corridors and the health and safety of people and property.

The city is required to treat all telecommunications providers neutrally, and this master permit would set precedent for all small future wireless providers seeking to provide or extend coverage in Edmonds.

The city, however, cannot regulate what types of wireless services enter the city.

Councilmember Buckshnis said she’s old enough to remember when cigarettes didn’t have U.S. Surgeon General warnings and she feels there is not yet enough information about the potentially negative health effects of newer generations of wireless.

The Federal Communications Commission issued an order in December 2019 that stated radio frequency exposure limits should remain unchanged. A scientific think tank Environmental Health Trust brought concerns about health implications of 5G before a federal court of appeals panel earlier this year.

“Something else that I found comfort in and that might be comforting for the public as well (is) Section 28 says the permittee agrees to comply with all present and future federal, state and local laws, ordinance rules and regulations,” Councilmember Olson said. “I feel like there’s some opportunity there … that laws can be put in place that would get it in the way of continued service that was harmful.”

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192;; Twitter: @BredaIsabella

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