GAITHERSBURG—The city of Gaithersburg announced on Sept. 25 that new petitions before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could impact its current Right-of-Way regulations, which guide the implementation of small-cell facilities.
A small-cell facility is a piece of wireless broadband infrastructure that usually looks like small antennas placed on existing structures or standalone towers. They help fill cellular service gaps where service is unreliable. They also bolster service areas where cell use is very high, such as city centers or sports arenas.
According to the National League of Cities (NLC), while small cell antennas are generally less noticeable, they sometimes come with refrigerator-sized equipment to help support them.
The City of Gaithersburg explained that small-cell facilities are becoming more popular as a solution to finding more network capacity.
“With mobile data traffic expected to double annually, providers have indicated that small cell facilities are necessary to expand the capacity of wireless networks,” they wrote.
Demand is increasing not only because of increased cell phone use but also because of the rise of other connected devices, such as smart speakers and smart home gadgets. In fact, even lightbulbs can become connected and controllable through a cell phone, which contributes to increased network usage.
“Requests for small cell antenna installations in the city are expected to rise dramatically in the coming years as the need for data increases. The city has adopted the necessary regulations and criteria to meet the requirements of federal law while respecting the integrity of our residential neighborhoods and commercial areas,” the city wrote.
According to the city, new petitions before the FCC, which were filed by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and the Wireless Infrastructure Association, could have an impact on existing city regulations.
“The new petitions seek to clarify terms, provide that an application be deemed ‘granted’ if a local government fails to act in a timely manner, liberalize the standard of what constitutes a substantial change to a facility, declare that conditional approvals violated the law and prohibit any process or conditions that effectively defeat or reduce the protections afforded under the law,” the city wrote.
Gaithersburg said that it intends to express its opposition to new industry requests.
The new antennas are often installed on existing city infrastructure, such as traffic lights, telephone poles and streetlights, but if the new petition is granted by the FCC, the regulations would allow more antennas arranged in any formation they see to be fit.
“These changes could allow placement of as many equipment cabinets as can fit on a pole, open up installations on utility company poles, allowing for virtually any configuration vertically or horizontally, if the structure is allowed on a pole regardless of local concealment standards and create a new building standard whereby if a small cell facility is allowed on any portion of a building, it must be allowed elsewhere on the same building regardless of its visibility,” the city wrote.
Although Gaithersburg has the right to manage requests for new antennas, it still must comply with federal statutes.
There is also some pushback from the community over new cell towers because of their appearance and the concern over health risks.
“Often, wireless providers will want small cells deployed in dense urban areas to provide adequate capacity in high demand spots,” wrote the NLC, “and each provider will want its own facility installed to cover the same dense area. Thus, there may be several requests to locate such facilities in the same general areas, such that four poles in a row will have small cells from four different wireless companies. This can result in clusters of small cells that are visually unappealing and detract from the aesthetic of the community.”
NLC also noted that small cell antennas can be disruptive to existing technology like wireless traffic signals, if they are in close proximity.
So far, according to the City of Gaithersburg, the mayor and council have investigated their options of how to best address small-cell facilities within its current rights-of-way. They have also conducted multiple meetings involving the public to determine the best approach for the city.
The FCC is currently seeking public comments on the new petitions through their electronic comment filing system before Oct. 15.