‘Small cell’ antennas placed on poles and roofs
By Jeff Simms
The Beacon City Council will hold a public hearing on Monday (June 18) on a proposal to regulate “small-cell wireless facilities,” or low-powered radio antennas that are typically placed on top of buildings or on utility poles.
The deployment of small-cell units has skyrocketed in recent years as the wireless industry tries to meet growing demand with faster broadband coverage. The 40-pound units, which are about 2 feet high, are meant to be less intrusive than traditional cell towers while filling in gaps in coverage of up to 1,000 feet.
Advocates tout the stations as critical infrastructure that will help power the impending expansion of 5G networks — the next step in significantly increasing the speed and capacity of wireless communications.
Opponents say the radio frequencies emitted by the units represent a serious health concern, and argue that, in time, small cells will create a blight on the landscape as they pop up in every imaginable space.
The city has received applications from Verizon Wireless to install small cells on utility poles at 2 Red Flynn Drive and 7 Cross St. But City Attorney Nick Ward-Willis predicts more will come, and from other providers, too, as 5G is rolled out.
Only a handful of municipalities in New York have laws regulating small-cell installation, so there’s little precedent, and Beacon officials have deferred acting on Verizon’s applications until the council regulates the units.
Ward-Willis told the council several weeks ago that, under federal law, Beacon cannot ban small-cell units or regulate them because of health concerns. But it could, to some extent, regulate their aesthetics.
“We know they’re coming and we know there’s going to be a lot of them,” he said. “We want to look at this comprehensively so we knew where they’re coming.”
A law drafted for the council would require wireless companies to get approval from the Planning Board to install small cells on most poles or buildings. For new towers or installations in more visible locations, the companies would need special-use permits from the City Council.
The proposal also establishes a priority list for where small cells should be installed, with the roof of city or government-owned buildings the first priority and privately owned utility poles last on the list. They would be banned from the city’s historic district, and wireless companies would pay a registration fee of $500 per unit and annual fees of $1,000 to $2,000.
Verizon lawyers have argued that permitting should be handled by the Building Department, and that coverage needs, not aesthetics alone, should determine the placement of small cells.