Cities walk a fine line with small cell providers

Martha DeGrasse, RCR Wireless
September 20, 2016 –

Wireless carriers know they need to densify their networks with urban small cells to support today’s data traffic and tomorrow’s “5G” networks. But as they work to deploy in public spaces, carriers and their agents are getting a crash course in local politics and procedures. Lessons learned in one city may not speed the process in the next, since each jurisdiction has different agencies and processes. But every city wants its citizens to have access to reliable communication networks.

“I know of no local communities that want to stop new facilities,” said Rick Edwards, president of CityScape Consulting, which works to “balance the field between cellular providers and municipalities.” Edwards said there are often constituencies within cities that try to block wireless infrastructure, but in his experience local officials want to move forward. “But they want to get it right and to provide what is needed without creating a porcupine landscape,” he said.

“Porcupine landscapes” are streets lined with wooden poles because each provider builds its own pole instead of attaching to existing infrastructure. There are many reasons a carrier might prefer to build a new pole, including the size of its equipment and the cost of attaching to a pole owned by a local utility. At times, the goals of a carrier may seem to be directly at odds with the city’s goals, but both sides want carriers to be able to offer reliable connections in crowded environments.

“Cities are definitely more aware of the deployment needs from the carriers’ perspective,” said Heather Leonard, national director for site development at Nexius. “I believe that they are willing to partner … and collaborate on some of the locations.”

Those partnerships are revenue opportunities for cities. Carriers and infrastructure providers usually pay cities franchise fees as well as monthly lease payments when they build in the public right of way. One U.S. city is so interested in the cellular revenue opportunity that it is exploring the idea of becoming a municipal neutral host by owning infrastructure and leasing it to carriers.

Cities see the value in robust wireless service not only for convenience and commerce, but also for public safety. Robert Stradling, CIO of Baltimore County, said that even though the county has a dedicated public safety network, commercial cellular networks can still be critical to first responders.

“Our police department and fire and other parts of our government use broadband and cellular technology to help us enhance our safety, so we want to have a very good, solid partner on the cellular side,” he said. “On the other side of it, we have the citizens that we are employed by who want us to make sure that we do the best we can to make sure that these towers and/or small towers, small cells … are appropriate for aesthetics in their residential community and so forth. So yes we walk a fine line.”

Stradling said Baltimore has recently taken steps to simplify the application process for would-be small cell providers by clarifying the steps involved in the permitting process. Both Baltimore County and the city of Baltimore place a strong emphasis on procedure when they work with infrastructure providers.

“They may not like the process, and they don’t necessarily want to do the process, and they forget parts of the process and they hold themselves up,” said Stradling.

It took almost six months for Mobilitie, the company working to deploy small cells for Sprint, to reach a franchise agreement with the city of Baltimore. Along the way the company incurred a $5,000 fine for excavating without a permit. Mobilitie describes Baltimore as one of the more challenging jurisdictions.

“They definitely have a defined process and a lot of city council meetings and a lot of mayor involvement,” said Mobilitie CEO Gary Jabara. “They have all sorts of committee meetings on pricing and allocation of space and those kinds of things, so they’re just one of the more effort-filled kind of jurisdictions to deal with,” he said.

Stradling said Baltimore officials have no interest in delaying deployments because they want good cellular networks as much as anyone. He said he sees a lot of variability between cellular providers in terms of preparedness and willingness to cooperate. For those that follow the rules, Stradling said Baltimore tries to make it easy.

“Here in Baltimore County we move as fast as we can,” he said. “There is a process, though. … If you’re not following the process, you’re really not blocking the process, you kind of follow a different process, which is that they shut you down.”

Click here to read the article in RCR Wireless News