The City Council has an opportunity to end the often divisive neighborhood fights over installation of small cell phone antennas by simply making space available to install much larger and more powerful antennas at a few city-owned utility substations, and even one on the roof of City Hall.
The possible solution was outlined to the council by a consultant Monday, who described several plans, including one that would need only three antennas of up to 280 feet to cover most of the city, although he acknowledged that such a plan might not pass muster with residents.
But a "hybrid option" featuring five thin towers of 100-125 feet could be nestled among equipment at five of the city's utility substations, and with the addition of a sixth unit on top of City Hall, could cover most neighborhoods. About 20 smaller "micro" antennas would be required to fill in some major gaps in this option.
Some neighborhoods will object to even a few of the smaller antennas favored by AT&T, but when coupled with the relative handful of larger towers, we believe this configuration will go a long way toward helping the city balance the insatiable demand for cellular bandwidth with some residents' objections to having a wireless transmitter anywhere near their home.
Precedent exists for the installation of the larger "macro" towers, which are already in place at three local fire stations, including one disguised as a fake tree. A Planning and Community Environment Department official told the Weekly that "the intent of the 'macro' approach is to allow the city to better dictate the location of tower facilities and to minimize the need for DAS (micro) and other antenna facilities in other parts of the community."
From the city's perspective, there are significant advantages to creating a network of cellular towers at utility substations, including:
A readily available inventory of tower locations on pre-approved sites
The ability of the city's fiber optic network to be used by wireless carriers to "backhaul" data between tower locations
The ability of substations to would provide wireless carriers access to pre-installed power and equipment housings
The flow of revenue that could come to the city under long-term leases of the facilities.
The staff report notes that one obvious advantage of using a few substation sites for wireless antennas "would be blending common aspects of facilities everyone needs and leveraging the common characteristics of both the utility substation and macro cell towers."
If the council agrees to embark on the 'hybrid' concept in the next few weeks, one of the first steps would be to retain a wireless communications consultant to evaluate the potential sites and designs for towers and antennas. The consultant would have to determine what impact a wireless tower would have on each utility substation. Also, the city will have to modify zoning regulations, including raising the height limits for public facility zoning from 75 to 125 feet in order to install the towers on each of the designated substation sites.
Even if the city were to authorize the macro tower network, carriers cannot be forced to locate their transmitters on the new system if they prefer to use the smaller, micro antennas. However, the staff report said the city could offer favorable lease rates and a streamlined process for approving permits to make it more attractive for multiple carriers to place their equipment on the macro towers. This could help meet the city's goal of centralizing transmitters rather than having each carrier go in a different direction.
It is totally appropriate for the city to provide space at its utility substations for cellular transmitters. The city has owned and operated utilities here for nearly 120 years and more recently has invested in a successful fiber network ring to connect its utility substations and other city facilities and commercial businesses.
But telecommunications services have been provided to residents by private companies, which have installed a patchwork of antennas on city light poles and other equipment, as well as on private property.
A new network of macro antennas could change all that by providing space to multiple carriers in a much more reliable, centralized environment. Such a system would allow the city to select tower locations and reduce the need for micro installations, which many residents consider ugly and noisy. It is possible that a communications company could provide upfront funding for a new hybrid system and provide the city with some steady rental income, all of which, in our opinion, adds up to an appealing proposition.