5G Aesthetics Prove a Balancing Act for Cities Like Palo Alto

Palo Alto, California

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Small cell deployments by wireless infrastructure providers are often less of a partnership with municipalities than they appear.

Crown Castle has the unenviable task of working with cities to deploy wireless networks, often after backing state legislation bypassing their authority to set lease rates for access to public rights of way.

The nation’s largest wireless infrastructure provider, Crown Castle has been accused of painting local government as a barrier to fifth generation wireless, or 5G, and undermining their leverage in public-private partnerships.

Still, Crown operates its own networks in communities for 20 to 30 years—making the Houston-based company a long-term reality for many municipalities.

“We do try to take municipal concerns into account because, at the end of the day, I need to get a permit to meet customer needs,” Karmen Rajamani, Crown Castle central regional director of government relations, told Route Fifty in an interview. "I would urge municipalities that they are the ultimate approver and permit issuer. They have power to enforce the standards that the community demands but also welcome small cells and 5G.”

In California, the Palo Alto Planning and Community Environment Department recently approved a controversial application from telecom infrastructure provider Vinculums, on behalf of Verizon, to deploy 11 small cells in the Bay Area city’s Midtown, Midtown South and Palo Verde neighborhoods. The application represents the first of six clusters on the city’s plate, possibly seven, three of which are proposed by Crown Castle.

Residents appealed the decision, arguing—despite the small cell equipment and antenna being contained in brown covers called shrouds—the unsightly infrastructure should be placed underground. Their seven appeals were denied.

“The city’s interest is the same that any community has to make sure residents and businesses have access to the internet and next generation wireless services,” said Jonathan Lait, the Planning and Community Environment Department’s assistant director.

Lait described Palo Alto’s relationship with Crown Castle as “less of a partnership” and more of the city ensuring small cells are deployed “in a way that’s least intrusive and observable to the average people on the street.”

Also working on behalf of Verizon, Crown Castle installs the infrastructure, and then wireless carriers determine how many polls and fiber strands they want to use to expand their network or close gaps in coverage.

Crown Castle’s equipment generally occupies 3 to 6 cubic feet of space and is stealthed to look like a green service mailbox, Rajamani said. While size varies among infrastructure providers, those are the parameters generally codified when states pass small cell laws.

“If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it,” Lait said.

Small cells are smaller in size than previous iterations of wireless infrastructure, and they bring the promise of 5G—though the technology remains theoretical. The wireless industry promises 5G deployment in 2018.

Small cells may take up less space, but they unfortunately require more nodes, and initial rollouts are planned for established residential areas where homeowners are likely to balk.

Palo Alto is starting to get concerned about the number of proposed small cells, Lait said, as the city wants to avoid light and utility poll congestion that could eliminate sightlines for motorists and residents.

Despite triumphing in the appeals process, Verizon pulled four nodes from its application to study the possibility of undergrounding them—a tricky process when you’re competing with other infrastructure like sewer lines and a water table that’s very close to the surface in some places.

Some cities in Ohio are scrambling to pass small cell ordinances before a recently signed, preemptive state law goes into effect. Wireless carriers in Cleveland had Crown Castle deploy 11 nodes ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention that were painted by local artists to mask the utility boxes.

States like California without sweeping small cell laws have seen individual cities like Sacramento and San José cut deals with wireless carriers establishing “self-perform” networks ahead of 5G pilots. But generally the shared infrastructure financial model large-scale providers like Crown Castle offer is favorable, Rajamani said.

In Palo Alto’s case, Vinculums and Verizon are presumably responding to the city’s comments on their build permit, which they’ll likely receive in July. After that, the small cell deployment schedule is left up to them.

“This is really applicant-driven,” Lait said. “The vendor, Verizon, has its plan for rolling this out.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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