Meet My Small Cell

Small cells are rolling out in neighborhoods all over the US. I decided to go find mine.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 7, 2020

12 Min Read
Meet My Small Cell

This is a story about how I met my small cell. Or at least, how I'm getting ready to meet it (it should be installed in a few months). It's going to be roughly a mile from my house in Arvada, a suburb of Denver, Colorado.

At least, that's the closest one to me right now. I expect someone in the next few years will build an even closer one.

This is important because, if you live in any urban or suburban area of the US, you're probably going to meet a local small cell, too.

If you don't have one already.

A major new trend
By most indications, small cells are the future of cellular and 5G: Those big, 100-foot tall macro cell towers that loom outside of town can't cut it anymore. They can't keep up with the growth in traffic across 3G, 4G, and 5G networks, and they're too tall and spread out to use for transmissions in higher spectrum bands like the millimeter wave (mmWave) bands that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile are in part using for 5G. (mmWave signals can only travel a few thousand feet.)

Network operators around the world are looking to "densify" their networks with small cells, which are essentially pizza box-size transmitters installed on top of light poles, rooftops and other so-called "street furniture." Ultimately, the US wireless industry is expected to install almost a million small cells around the country in the years to come -- trade group CTIA forecasts that the number of small cells in the US will grow from around 86,000 in 2018 to over 800,000 by 2026.

Of course, this isn't going to be easy. Small cell vendors will need to get municipal permission to install them. They'll need to route power to them. And they'll need to figure out some way -- fiber, microwave or something else -- to connect them to the wired Internet. And then they'll need to make money from all this, too.

It's a challenge that companies like Zayo, Verizon, Crown Castle and ExteNet Systems are embracing in a big way in virtually every US city.

Because I've been writing about this topic for almost a decade now, and because the small cell push took off in earnest last year, I decided it was time to meet my small cell. And thus, I began my search for the small cell that's physically closest to where I live.

A fortuitous connection
To find my small cell, I had planned to connect with the city of Denver first, given that it already has a large and growing network of small cells. Although downtown Denver is roughly ten miles from my house -- not very close when it comes to small cells -- I figured that was the place to start.

And then I lucked out; the answer to my small cell quest literally landed in my lap. The city of Arvada produces a weekly newsletter, and right there on page three was everything I needed:

"Small cell facilities are arriving in Arvada," read the blurb. "Small cells are installed and operated by private providers, including Verizon, AT&T and Zayo, on behalf of Sprint, to continually improve and expand their network capacity and coverage. Legally, the City of Arvada cannot restrict the installation of the small cell sites; it is required by federal and state law."

It also included a phone number and website for details.

After a bit of footwork that included carefully explaining the fact that I'm a legitimate journalist working on a legitimate story about small cells, I got in touch with Linda Hoover, a senior planner in the City of Arvada.

Hoover explained that Arvada just finished a two-year process to get ready for the small cell wave. Cities around the country are being inundated with small cell applications, and the municipal issues surrounding small cells are much different than the issues around 100-foot-tall macro towers. Arvada's small cell efforts included the creation of a small cell section inside the city's eTRAKiT permitting system, as well as the development of an organizational structure that could handle dozens or even hundreds of small cell permits. Hoover said four people must approve each small cell permit in Arvada: an engineering and traffic person, a permitting clerk, a permit administrator, and someone like Hoover in the city's planning department.

In order to submit a small cell application, a company like Verizon must first sign a master lease agreement with the city. The company must then pay a $300 planning review fee for the small cell site, plus whatever extra electrical and traffic fees apply to that specific small cell's installation (total city fees on my small cell are $1,336.54).

The reason for all this red tape ought to be clear to anyone even remotely familiar with local zoning and permitting rules in the US. It's important for cities to tightly control who can do what with public infrastructure. I've been to countries where there is little or no oversight on these kinds of issues, and it's not pretty:

Figure 1: Rights of way in the Dominican Republic. (Source: Mike Dano) Rights of way in the Dominican Republic.
(Source: Mike Dano)

A municipal minefield
Thankfully, it sounds to me like Hoover and the city of Arvada are aware of the sticky issues surrounding small cells in the US. In its note to residents, the city nods to new FCC rules approved in 2018 that essentially forbid cities from blocking or charging excessive fees for the installation of small cells. Hoover explained that Arvada's small cell fees are designed to recoup the cost of the permitting process, but not to make extra revenues. That's a change from how Arvada handles macro cell tower applications, which are designed to add to the city's revenues.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the FCC's new small cell rules haven't gone down well with other cities like Eugene, Oregon, and Huntsville, Alabama, which are among a group of localities suing to block the FCC's small cell guidelines.

The city of Arvada is also aware of concerns around the country about the health effects of small cells and 5G in general. "STOP KILLING THE CHILDREN!!!" wrote one cell tower opponent in a Washington state town considering a cell tower next to an elementary school.

"If you would like to learn more about the safety of the [small cell] facilities, visit FCC-Safety," the city of Arvada notes on its website.

And Arvada also has clear guidelines designed to prevent small cell vendors from installing unsightly equipment. "All Small Cell Facilities shall, to the extent possible, match the appearance and design of existing City traffic signal or City or utility street light or distribution pole adjacent to the Wireless Site," the city states in its guidelines. That's likely intended to forestall embarrassing stories like this one from Aurora, another Denver suburb, that trumpeted "mysterious" computer boxes showing up in residents' yards that were actually for small cells.

Hoover said that the city is preparing to approve its first dozen small cell permits, including mine, and that it ought to be able to move much more quickly on future applications now that the system is in place. That's probably a good thing considering companies like Verizon, ExteNet and Crown Castle have started filing lawsuits against cities like Torrance, California, that they believe are dragging their feet when it comes to prompt action on small cell installation applications.

Next page: Small cells and big politics

My small cell manager
Hoover, with the city of Arvada, said the closest small cell to me would be installed at the corner of 58th and Wadsworth Blvd.-- one foot away from the curb -- which is about a mile from my house. She said Zayo was building the pole for Sprint, and that equipment from AT&T might also be added to the pole, too.

Figure 2: The site of my pending small cell. (Source: Mike Dano) The site of my pending small cell.
(Source: Mike Dano)

She said that, although the city prefers to have small cells put on top of existing light poles, this one would be a free-standing pole dedicated to small cells. She said such poles can't be taller than 40 feet per city code, and that this one would clock in at 38 feet. She added that the city doesn't want small cells on top of traffic lights because it might interfere with traffic.

She gave me the name and phone number of the Zayo employee shepherding the permit -- which Arvada makes available publicly -- through the city's process.

I tried to get in touch with him, but Zayo's PR department instead connected me with Brian Daniels, SVP of strategic networks at Zayo. I carefully explained the premise of my story but Daniels didn't know much about the small cell at the corner of 58th and Wadsworth Blvd.

Further, he declined to answer many of my questions, including how much it's going to cost Zayo to build the pole, which carriers will be supported on the pole, which vendors will supply the transmission equipment for the gadget, and what third-party company will do the actual, physical installation work. His obfuscation -- which, to be fair, is ubiquitous among upper-level telecom executives -- made me appreciate Hoover's straightforward answers to my questions about this thing that's going to be installed in my neighborhood.

All that said, Zayo's Daniels did explain that the company submitted the permit for the small cell in early 2019 and that he expects Zayo to begin construction on the project shortly. He said it ought to take 60-90 days to finish the work, mainly due to the time it will take Denver's power company, Xcel, to route power to the pole.

Zayo is in the small cell business because it operates an extensive fiber network throughout Denver and elsewhere. Still, Daniels said he didn't know how close Zayo's fiber network runs to the location of my particular small cell. He said it's relatively easy for the company to route extra fiber to a small cell location, which can involve stringing fiber along telephone lines or underground. Moreover, he said my small cell would not be immediately connected to Zayo's fiber network anyway -- instead, it will use wireless backhaul. That's not really a surprise considering Sprint is a heavy user of wireless backhaul in order to reduce costs.

Daniels wouldn't give me an exact number, but he said that Zayo operates "several thousand" small cells nationwide and "several hundred" in Colorado in an operation that stretches from Colorado Springs to Boulder.

And will AT&T be on the pole in addition to Sprint? "Our goal is to have as many tenants as possible," he said. He added that some poles could potentially accommodate equipment for three to four different operators, but it depends on what kind of equipment those operators want.

Interestingly, he said some poles might only be able to support equipment from one operator if that operator needs antennas for lots of different technologies like LAA, mmWave 5G, massive MIMO and the CBRS spectrum band, for example. "I think if you can get three [carriers installed on the pole], you've really maximized that real estate," he said.

"Cutting-edge technology, innovation, forward-thinking and proactive planning are crucial to preparing Sioux Falls and the region for quality of life improvements driven by technology advancements, and 5G plays a pivotal role in the equation," said Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Mayor Paul Tenhaken in recent testimony before the US Senate. Tenhaken said Sioux Falls is open for business when it comes to small cells. "I am excited to foster and support 5G in Sioux Falls as we seek to model the way for what successful deployment can look like and remove unnecessary barriers to entry for this critical infrastructure."

Others are taking a decidedly different tack. "My fear is that between a one-block segment, which is only maybe five or six addresses, you could have five or six poles ultimately from five different companies," Christian Sigman, city manager of Brookhaven, Georgia, told Axios. Brookhaven is a city of 57,000 that's among the cities suing the FCC over its small cell guidelines.

Both Arvada's Hoover and Zayo's Daniels are aware of these kinds of opinions about small cells. They know that small cells can concurrently generate serious improvements in residents' lives while also raising significant concerns and fears.

These are the issues that made me want to meet my small cell. What is it going to do for me? Where is it going to be? And who's handling all this stuff?

I won't be alone in asking these questions. As small cells roll out in cities and towns around the country, more and more people are going to be wondering about the same things.

Thus, it should probably come as no surprise that small cell proponents are in the early stages of a public awareness campaign. Indeed, Verizon last year created the "Let's 5G" website to encourage people to contact their local representatives to "support the immediate rollout of 5G wireless service in our community." Similarly, Crown Castle funds the Texas 5G Alliance to smooth the installation of small cells there.

This kind of lobbying is even going on in my backyard. According to Denver's Westword, Verizon created the Denver Tech Future website to "educate the public on how technology will change lives."

These companies have their work cut out for them. For them it's business. For the rest of us, it's personal.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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