Small cell

A type of small cell antenna has been installed at Atkinson Park in Santa Maria.

Wireless devices have changed how many people see, share and interact with the world. As technology has changed, so have the rules, regulations and laws about how, where and in what form wireless networks are built.

Though users have the freedom to walk, drive and even hike with their contacts and the internet at their fingertips, cellphones, tablets and other devices are tethered to a network, albeit invisible.

To satisfy consumer demand for efficient and reliable networks, wireless communication providers need to construct towers, antennas and other structures -- and they come in many shapes and sizes.

The Santa Maria Planning Commission has been working to encourage wireless network providers to use less conspicuous transmission options, while some members of the California Legislature have been working to remove any authority local municipalities have over the construction of wireless network infrastructure.

Senate Bill 649, which is working its way through the legislative process, aims to create a statewide high-speed wireless network by granting wireless providers freedom to place their devices wherever they want in the public right of way, and cap any potential fees cities can charge the companies to install their devices.

In effect, wireless network providers would enjoy much the same access as public utilities. 

How the network shapes up now

A networks’ foundation starts with large -- some more than 200 feet tall -- macro cell towers.

The large structures act like a large highway system for cellular and data transmissions. To blend into their surroundings, they have taken on different disguises. Some are made to look like clock towers, others have been disguised as church steeples, water towers, palm trees and cacti.

In the city of Santa Maria, most towers have been built to look like pine trees. These structures are called tree-poles.

“If placed in an area with other trees, there is the possibility that the average person will not notice the installation -- thus, the new installation would not be considered to have as significant a visual impact as a regular cell tower,” said Santa Maria Planning Division Manager Peter Gilli.

Though needed to provide a service in high demand, the issue of cell towers and tree-poles is not without controversy.

“On one hand, these installations provide more service capacity for residents, and when located on city property, the city collects lease payments that help fund the programs and maintenance the city provides,” Gilli said.

“On the other hand, these facilities can be unattractive, and some believe there are health issues from radio emissions,” he added.

In August 2016, Verizon petitioned the city of Santa Maria to build a large tree-pole next to the city fire station at Rotary Centennial Park. As part of the application process, the Planning Commission held a public hearing on the matter after alerting area residents of the wireless provider's plan.

“We take these proposals through a public hearing process that includes notification of all property owners within 300 feet of the site. And we treated the entire Rotary Centennial Park as the site that the 300 feet was measured from, not just 300 feet from the pole,” Gilli said.

“Many residents attended the meeting and opposed the proposal at the Planning Commission hearings in August 2016,” he added.

Due to the opposition, city officials asked Verizon to withdraw their proposal.

“Verizon is looking at other alternatives for the area. They have the need to provide more capacity because customers use so much more bandwidth than they used to,” Gilli said.

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Some of the alternatives to large cell towers are smaller antennas on top of already in place utility poles and buildings -- systems called small cell.

The small cell units don’t replace large towers, but they add more layers of coverage.

“It is not just making that call or keeping that call, it is being able to get those data speeds we use for work and home,” Tricia Knight, telecommunications consultant for Verizon, said recently before the Planning Commission.

To support the network and bolster data speeds, there needs to be a lot of the small cell units.

Radio Frequency Engineer Dewayne Bonham told the Planning Commission earlier this year that small cell units have to be installed at least “every quarter mile.”

“This is the new technology. You are going to see a lot more of these as we all use our devices much more,” Knight said.

The small cell units usually consist of a placing a few antennas on an existing utility pole and adding about two utility boxes with supporting equipment on the ground next to the pole. The antennas add about 10 feet to the overall height of the utility poles.

“In general, the Planning Division supports telecommunication companies’ efforts to expand the capacity and service levels for our residents. This is important for the quality of life as well as for business-related economic development purposes. Any method of providing the service while minimizing the visual impact is encouraged,” Gilli said.

“Staff does support and prefer the utility pole installations because the utility pole itself is already there. The telecom facility might make the utility pole slightly less attractive, but it’s considered far better than a brand new pole being added,” he added.

On March 15, the Planning Commission approved the construction of a small cell unit at 1001 E. Donovan Road on a utility pole owned by Pacific, Gas and Electric Co.

“I am tickled to death. It is so much better than the dreaded monopine,” Planning Commission Chairman Robert Dickerson said when the project was approved.

“We’ve been asking Verizon to do this for a while,” Commissioner Maribel Aguilera-Hernandez said March 15.

State law could change everything

While the Santa Maria and other California municipalities have some power in how these devices will impact their communities, state SB 649, sponsored by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, aims to wrestle those controls away from local governments.

“Lobbyists annually push the federal and state government to pass laws to limit the local jurisdiction’s ability to review these facilities," Gilli said. "Lobbyists for League of California Cities and other groups push back, arguing that the public should have a say in what happens in their area. Over my time as a planner, the local jurisdiction’s authority has been reduced, and every legislative season we wonder if local authority will be trimmed again.”

SB 649 provides that “no state or local statute or regulation, or other state or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.”

Among its other provisions, the bill would make it California law that, “a state or local government may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facility's request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such a tower or base station.”

On May 31, the state Senate voted 32-1, with seven senators, including Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, not voting, to approve the measure.

It will now go before the state Assembly for debate and vote before potentially heading to the governor’s desk to become law.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.