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Small Cell Towers: City tries to address new mobile technology

Jul 06, 2016 08:59AM ● Published by Chris Larson

Sandy City currently doesn't have a code to address the next phase of mobile communications: small cell towers. 

Sandy City planner Wade Sanner said that the city has been informally approached by cell carriers Verizon Wireless and Mobilitae to build small cell, or micro, cell towers dedicated to boosting data speeds. 

However, the city has no code to address formal applications from carriers to build such towers despite federal mandate that municipalities give a formal response within a certain period of time.  

"So that binds us a little bit as staff because once a company applies we have a certain time frame according to (federal) law to act upon that application and we don't have an ordinance in place to address it," Sanner said. 

Cellular data traffic in North America has exploded over 40 times what it was in 2010 according to data analysis by Ericsson Mobility Report and estimates state that data use will double again in the next four years, Sanner said. 

"Demand for wireless data services has nearly doubled over the last year, and is expected to grow 650% between 2013 and 2018 according to Cisco," Verizon Wireless Mountain Region public relations manager Meagan Dorsch. 

The explosion in data comes—in part—as mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops and an increasing number of other devices attempt to access the internet in earnest for customer consumption. 

In response, carriers like Verizon Wireless are approaching municipalities about installing small cell networks as well as traditional macro sites to meet the coming demand. 

"Small cells consists of a radio, antenna, power and a fiber connection. Other considerations like height are dependent on the location and local jurisdiction," Dorsch said. 

Sanner said an interdepartmental committee came up with nine initial points for regulating small cells in the city that include mandating common aesthetic properties across companies, requiring underground infrastructure and co-locating small cells where possible. Other requirements include minimum distances from residential areas and height restrictions. 

Councilman Stephen Smith asked how long it would take the administration to bring serious considerations back to the council and asked that a series of logistical concerns be addressed. Sanner estimates that serious proposal for new code could come before the council within a month.

Sanner and other city employees will meet with other city administrators in Utah who have allowed small cell towers to discuss policy ideas.

Smith further inquired if building small cell towers would require the city to account for applications to build in residential areas, an issue addressed and restricted in the city code with macro cell towers. 

These towers would range from 35 to 60 feet tall and often require underground cable for optic fiber, power and possibly or connect towers together, Sanner said. 

"Verizon works hand-in-hand with each local jurisdiction on small cells placement including right-of-way regulations and more," Dorsh said. 

Antennas for sites could be installed on existing light poles or the carrier could build and maintain a new light pole at their own expense and to the specifications of the city according to Public Works Director Rick Smith said. Smith also said requiring them to be placed on corners could help keep them away from where people live. 

Dorsch said a carrier or a "shared wireless infrastructure provider" would foot the bill for a small cell site. 

Councilman Smith expressed further concern over the proliferation of small cell towers in the the city. Sanner said carriers, unless otherwise arranged, would require their own equipment, independent of other carrier equipment in the area, to maintain a small cell. But it is possible to have a few small cell towers worth of equipment on one tower, Sanner said. 

Sanner also said this could be a revenue opportunity for the city by arraigning franchise and lease agreements with carriers to either lease space or build poles in the public right of way. 

Coverage for a small cell site can range from a "few hundred feet to upwards of 1,000 feet depending on topography, capacity needs, and more," Dorsch said. 

The top five uses of data consumptions come from social media apps and media/video apps with each making up 23 percent and 22 percent of daily user consumption, respectively, according to Sanner's presentation. 

"This small focused footprint supports 4G LTE-enabled devices, allowing more consumers to do things like stream video, use HD Calling or share photos on social media during events," Dorsch said in an email.

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