Preparing for Small Cell Deployments by Elana Zana-MRSC, September 1, 2017

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  • Preparing for Small Cell Deployments by Elana Zana-MRSC, September 1, 2017

From Municipal Research Services Center-

During 2017, the wireless industry targeted local regulation for preemption in filings before
the Federal Communications Commission, as well as orchestrated a concerted national effort
in the state legislatures, including in Olympia. Though new legislation (see SB 5711) was not
passed this year, the deployment of small cells will intensify and the industry is likely to return
to the legislature. During the next several months, cities are encouraged to evaluate their
approach to small cell deployment and determine how to appropriately respond to requests for
cell siting by companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and Mobilitie.

Put simply, a small cell is smaller than the macro cell tower facilities which serve as the backbone
of the wireless industry. It contains radios and antennas (often multiple) as well as requires power
and fiber in order to transmit cellular phone and data signals. Typically, small cells are attached to
utility poles or light/traffic poles within the rights-of-way. The purpose of the small cells is to
augment capacity for data traffic in dense areas (primarily downtown cores and residential
neighborhoods), and they are typically 25-45 feet in height, rather than tall macro towers that
extend beyond 75 feet. For a better understanding of the fundamentals of small cells, visit
T-Mobile’s website. (Photo Courtesy of Verizon.)

Recommendations on Preparing for Small Cell Deployment

As you prepare your city for small cell deployment, here is a top ten list of recommendations:

  1. Involve Multiple Departments. Since the location of small cells is primarily in the public
    rights-of-way, the involvement of multiple departments including the public works/engineering,
    transportation and planning/development services is necessary.  Further, if city-owned poles are
    rented, then the real estate or finance department should also participate. Determine which
    department is best suited to take the lead on small cell siting.
  2. Educate Planning Commission and City Council. Engage the council and the public in
    conversations about small cell deployment and how best to accommodate appropriate technology
    in the cityscape.
  3. Engage with the Wireless Industry. The industry can provide educational material and explain
    their anticipated deployments in the city. Working cooperatively together will help both parties plan
    effectively to ensure that the cell sites fit with the city’s design standards and meet the industry’s
    coverage and capacity needs.
  4. Include the Pole Owners. In many cities, the electric utility owns the majority of the utility poles
    in the public rights-of-way. These companies restrict telecommunications attachments and designs,
    including the height of the pole and the necessity for pole replacements. Make sure that the city’s
    design standards consider the design requirements imposed by the pole owner.
  5. Draft Code Revisions. Current wireless communications codes were developed to address macro
    facilities located on dedicated towers and monopoles or attached to buildings or water towers. The old
    codes do not typically contemplate the use of public rights-of-way or design standards for utility pole
    attachments. Further, many codes do not address the federal shot clocks and utilize conditional use
    permit processes which may extend past the timelines.
  6. Prepare for Franchise Applications. Develop a franchise application-specific to small cells and
    draft a template franchise/master permit for small cells. Though similar to other telecommunications
    franchises, small cells focus less on wireline technology and more on infrastructure attached to facilities
    in the rights-of-way.
  7. Wireline Deployments. In order for small cells to function, they need a fiber connection which requires
    either an aerial or underground line (in some circumstances microwave technology is used). Expect an
    increase in telecommunications wireline permits and franchise applications in conjunction with small
    cell deployment.
  8. Track Shot Clocks. State law imposes a 120-day shot clock for issuing new franchises/master permits
    and 30 days for right of way use permits. See RCW 35.99.030.  Federal law has shot clock requirements
    for siting or modifying cell facilities (90 days for colocations, 150 days for new facilities, and 60 days for
    eligible facilities requests). Mark the date a complete application is received and issue permits in a timely
    fashion.
  9. Streamline Permit Process. Small cells are typically deployed in batches of 15-30.  Create a process
    for the streamlined review of permits internally and encourage the wireless applicant to apply for the
    proposed buildout of entire neighborhoods in order to assess the cumulative impact.
  10. Create Design Standards. Develop generally applicable design standards to guide both the city and telecommunications industry. The technology may drive the design, so collaboration with the industry is
    beneficial. Also, identify if there are some districts in which small cell deployment is not feasible or
    desirable.

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