We often hear how uncooperative municipal planners can be regarding approval for siting of urban small cells. Network operators have pushed hard at national levels to relax the rules, with success in many countries. One Californian city planner, speaking on a personal basis, provides an opposing view and cites examples where the rules have been abused and suggests ways to accelerate the process for the benefit of all.
Californian perspective with examples from elsewhere in the US
This article is based on a detailed post by Omar Masry, a City Planner in the San Francisco area who highlights ten key issues. There's also a slide-deck. It’s quite evocative and worth a read. With network operators (or their subcontractors) proposing some large, ugly or very tall outdoor street sites under the guise of small cells, he illustrates some dubious practices probably driven more by commercial rather than technical requirements.
The term Small Cell is being used for some quite substantial installations, including urban masts up to 120 feet (40 metres) alongside cabinets the size of refrigerators with noisy fans for air conditioning and even diesel backup generators. These aren’t the sleek, compact products I’d typically associate with the term Small Cell and are often really compact macrocells with similar power and capacity. They provide evidence of the growing densification of outdoor networks, especially in the spread out suburban areas of the USA.
Cell towers and sites are normally on private property and thus planning approval comes from the regular planning department. Those on streets and sidewalks are located on the Public Right of Way (PROW) which falls under the Public Works Review department. Often these departments have quite different rules and processes. Sometimes they don’t collaborate as much as they might do.
He identifies some examples of abuse of the system:
- Siting tower masts on the street rather than on private property purely due to lower site rental fees. The proposal below to install a 120 foot mast on the sidewalk in Oregon is an extreme example, elsewhere these would reach at most telegraph pole height.
- Extending an existing site using “the 6409 rule”. An existing installation can be expanded with a streamlined 60 day permit application, adding 10 feet of height, six horizontal arms and extra bulky equipment. This can transform a well designed discrete site into an eyesore.
- Not building sites correctly or with the required permits. This may be an issue where the rate of deployment has rapidly increased, and new sub-contractors have been hired without as much supervision as required.
- Making any suggested modification by planners look so bulky and ugly on a mockup illustration that it appears infeasible.
Fitting into the street context
I know of several excellent small cell products that are sleek, compact and fully integrated. Some solutions may require a separate wireless backhaul unit.
Omar comments on examples of site designs that are “more akin to something put together from the parts bin at the back of a Radio Shack”. It doesn’t have to be that way, and I’ve heard elsewhere that some municipalities are defining a clear format for standard size/weight/colour to be used for all street installations regardless of vendor or technology used.
Here's a contrast between two sites - on the the left with planning input vs on the right without.
There are also good examples where consideration of the local area have included some softening of the impact. Crown Castle has explored using fake USPS Mailboxes (the green relay ones rather than those used by the public). Wooden fence panelling may discretely hide sidewalk equipment from view.
A more extreme example involved digging a large underground equipment bay under the sidewalk which seems quite costly to me and impractical for most cases. I would have thought it easier to use something like several of Kathrein’s StreetConnect manhole cover antennas and/or an integrated lamppole/bus shelter instead.
There are other less obtrusive techniques available too, such as suspending small cells in sealed pods from existing street wiring or embedded within street furniture.
Lack of urban small cell site sharing
The mentality of site sharing (or even network sharing) varies in different regions across the world. In the US, there are large organisations deploying outdoor sites on behalf of more than more operator. What I’m not seeing much of yet is urban small cell site sharing. That shouldn’t necessarily mean even more equipment at each lamppost but could involve two small cells discretely sharing the same wireless or wired backhaul at each point. Four operators would then only need two sets of deployments.
There are also a few solutions now which do incorporate four separate small cells within the same enclosure.
An alternative would be to use oDAS (outdoor DAS) where a single antenna is shared but this requires dedicated dark fibre to every site.
Indoor deployment would be best
We are often reminded that over 80% of traffic originates indoors and my view is that serving that traffic directly with indoor small cells would be more suitable, especially in highly populated cities with many high rise buildings.
The topology of many US suburban areas differs from other parts of the world, with very widespread low level offices and residential areas, which may appear to make this less practical.
However the economics of in-building wireless, where the building owner/tenant may contribute towards the cost of the system and provide power and backhaul without any site rental fee, should make this an attractive alternative.
Frankly Omar paints a pretty grim picture of the state of urban small cell planning and deployment practice in the US. I would hope this isn’t representative across the whole country and I believe this does vary widely from state to state.
It seems to me that the sooner that a consensus view of the physical format of what’s reasonable and acceptable can be clarified, then the sooner that the industry (vendors, planners, installers) can simplify and streamline approval and deployment processes. Simply bypassing regulations is unlikely to work – there would be a strong reaction from the public if a large number of ugly, unsightly and noisy equipment started appearing unexpectedly.