Des Moines drafting new ordinance to allow low powered cell network expansion


By Jack Mayne

The Des Moines City Council was briefed at a study session Thursday (April 5) on city legislation being drafted to allow the expansion of new low-powered cellular networks that will provide cellular and data coverage to smaller geographic areas and that supplement the larger cell network.

The ordinance is already at 14 pages with more to come, said City Attorney Tim George, and the final proposal should come back in June to the Council for consideration.

The small cell antennas will be attached to existing utility poles and have a range from 10 meters to a few kilometers. They are used by mobile cell operators to extend service coverage and increase network capacity as well as the continual demand for increased speed.

Expert consultant hired
Des Moines City Attorney Tim George told the study session that the city has hired a consultant to guide the city’s upgrade in highly technical communications technology. He is Scott Snyder, a lawyer in the Seattle office of the law firm Ogden, Murphy, Wallace.

Since the use of city rights of way are under Des Moines Council control, the city’s franchising rules are “a very strong force” to determining where and how many such facility will be approved on city rights of way, Snyder said.

He told Council that while smart phones are used as telephones, 80 percent of what is transmitted through the smart phone is video. All of the new uses for the burgeoning smart phones is driving the need for increased network speed. “Macro sites,” the tall towers “that have been the backbone of the cellular industry … “are simply insufficient for a variety of reasons,” he said, so small cells are coming into use.

20 to 40 feet high
He showed a slide comparing an individual using a cell phone, the size of a new low power antenna on light and utility poles that are 20 feet to 40 feet high, and the giant main antennas now used in various locations that are 120 feet high. Snyder said there might be four small antennas affixed to a pole to give 360 degree service, or just one or two for line of sight service.

Snyder said Puget Sound Energy is an “important player” in the small cell expansion. At the initial comment period earlier, Julien Loh, local government affairs manager at Puget Sound Energy, said he was available to help with small cell technology.

The question comes up time and again around the region about how many different cell service companies can locate their antenna on a pole.

“Small cells are challenging from a local government standpoint,” said Snyder, noting he is helping Tim George craft an ordinance for Des Moines because the cells are controlled by state law and by federal law. So what the pole installations look like may be guided by the agencies outside Des Moines control.

Zero to 13,000 applications
He said in Seattle for years there were almost no applications for small cell tower installations, but this year they have had 13,000 applications. Verizon is one of the first to get into the small antenna installation action, but all of the cellular companies will be moving in the immediate future into small tower installations.

In addition, many utilities have been going underground in recent years but the small cell towers are “above ground tecnology” so poles may actually have to be installed in areas where they were removed.

“You can imagine that if you are in a neighborhood that paid for an LID (local improvement district) to underground and now you find the poles are going right back up to put another device in the air and limiting the impacts will be important,” Snyder said.

If the nation begins to allow driverless cars that are controlled by cellular service to operate, the gaps of the service must be addressed, said Snyder, and the city cannot preempt radio frequencies which is preempted by federal law.

Can’t limit technology
But he did emphasize that the city can’t limit technology, or to forbid a company from trying to close the gaps in its technology. There can be no gaps in services, Snyder said.

“The city can’t discriminate among service providers,” he said, and the city will have to allow all of them.

The city can require that coverage gaps use the “least intrusive means” of closing gaps and it can regulate new poles in the right of way and utility poles over 60 feet high and can charge a ground lease fee.



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