Aesthetics and 5G

A recent news article by CBS4 in Denver shows a power supply unit for 5G that was recently installed in Aurora, CO. It’s roughly 5-foot tall and I venture to guess that most homeowners would not want this device at the front of their home.

The cellular companies have convinced the FCC that they need carte blanche authority to place small cell sites where they are needed, and the FCC gave them this authority in September 2018. The FCC order reversed the historic process where cell site placement was under local control. In asking for a national preemption of local rules the cellular carriers argued that they needed blanket authority to put cell sites anywhere in public rights-of-way if the US is to win the 5G war.

Communities all over the country have pushed back hard against the FCC ruling. Numerous cities and states have filed lawsuits against the FCC ruling. Courts have chipped away at that ruling and in August of this year, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC couldn’t preempt local ordinances concerning environmental and historic preservation reviews of cell site placement. A few cities have passed ordinances that would stop deployment of small cells due to concerns about health, property values, or aesthetics.

When the wireless companies first started deploying pole-mounted small cell sites some of the deployments were major eyesores. Deployments included placing large boxes and antennas and power supplies in the air connected by a maze of live wires. The wireless carriers quickly cleaned up their act in terms of hideous deployments, but in looking at the deployment in Aurora they still have a way to go. One interesting thing about this deployment is that the device sits on the ground. When this order was issued the press covered this as an order about placing devices on poles and they missed that the FCC gave the big carriers the right to put devices anywhere in the public right-of-way.

Historically, carriers would seek homeowner permission to install cabinet-sized boxes. More often than not they would find a place in a neighborhood where the cabinets and boxes were somewhat hidden from sight. Even though the process required voluntary participation by homeowners, it worked well. Sometimes carriers had to go to the city when they were unable to find a location for a needed cabinet, but in most cases, the carriers and the public worked out a solution.

It seems unfair that the first time that a homeowner finds they are getting a large cabinet in their yard is during the installation process. Just because carriers have the right to place anything related to small cells in the right-of-way doesn’t mean they should callously do so without communicating with the public. In this case, the wireless carrier probably had alternatives like placing the needed electronics in an underground vault instead of the large cabinet. That solution would cost more but would eliminate animosity with residents.

That raises an interesting regulatory question. In the long-run regulations are driven by what the public finds acceptable or unacceptable. The public in Aurora is not likely to be upset by this one small cell deployment, but imagine if there are 200, or 500 or 1,000 identical cabinets placed around the city. When carriers deploy solutions that the public doesn’t like, a city is going to fight back against the unpopular practices. New ordinances for small cells are likely to end up in court, and at some point, a judge will decide if the Aurora small cell device somehow crosses the line.

The FCC 5G order is interesting in that it swings to the far extreme of the regulatory pendulum by ruling that the wireless carriers have blanket authority to place any device anywhere they want. Over time, whether done by a future FCC, by the courts, or by Congress, rulings at the extreme fringe of the regulatory pendulum inevitably swing back towards the center. It’s almost inevitable over time that cities will get back more say about the aesthetics of small cell placement.

7 thoughts on “Aesthetics and 5G

  1. Yeeeeeah, you know I tried to warn the city I lived in at the time (Santa Fe), when they were issuing permits that (a) it wasn’t getting rid of 4g towers, (b) they weren’t going to like the 27cu ft per pole of ancillary gear that *would* be needed for power and caching and traffic management and fans to make 5g go, (c) that it would likely only be installed in wealthy neighborhoods, and (d) that the business model for actual mobile 5g was completely unlikely, so not to get too attached to the idea of 5g producing anything other than another home internet provider…

    But, they liked the story the telcos were feeding the contractor that was making up their plans, better than what I tried to tell them. They were basically not listening to anyone who didn’t have a vested interest in jamming 5g through, with little or no understanding of what it actually entailed.

    Santa Fe is completely dependent on tourism, so extra boxes in the (wealthy) historic Adobe charm neighborhoods is a disaster. It’s been very hard for local isps to deal with historical restrictions, and this whole thing is utterly corrupt self dealing by the (dwindlingly small number of) mobile telcos.

    • Amen. I’m positive the city government in Aurora Colorado also had no clue that these big power supply cabinets were going to start popping up in residential neighborhoods.

      Most of the FCC order that gave the rights to cellular carriers to do whatever they want is under appeal, and many cities are still refusing to allow construction they don’t like. But if the courts side with the FCC the cities will have no say on the issue.

      Funniest thing of all to me is that the cabinet in the article is for a 4g LTE small cell site – for now this has nothing to do with 5G.

      • Yeah, faster networks need caching, distributed control, power, fans… Fiber or cable have enough bandwidth to, largely, regionally concentrate it.

        Papering over the limitations in the radio medium is just too problematic, given the state of the art (maybe at all). This ends up looking like one of those classic abstraction fails you get in software all the time (e.g., remote procedure calls which have important new failure and retry conditions because…remote).

        And, given cloud, how many aspirations for using the bandwidth are relegated to pipe dream? (I now live someplace with cheap Gig bandwidth and I’m sending this to you on my 100mbps connection, which is probably, also overkill…)

        The only thing more idiotic is the notion of trusting real-time critical control of (potentially deadly) vehicles to a high speed radio network. But…I fear I am repeating myself :).

      • Alan DeLollis, President, Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance

        We agree that the placement of this facility was poorly done and that most homeowners would feel the same as Ms. Williams. This is a bad situation that she finds herself in.

        The TV channel called with questions to the city of Aurora, and it was determined to be a power source for a cell tower going up in the neighborhood. Those at the city agreed to work with the carrier and look at alternatives to minimize the visual impact of the installations. It was an eyesore and now less than a month later the box is gone.

        Cities such as Aurora are definitely aware that the current FCC has instituted onerous and strong actions that have further cut into local authorities’ ability to manage this space on behalf of its residents.

        A general shortcoming of the original report was not clarifying further that is probably not “her” private property. What many think is “your property” may actually include several feet of public right of way where utilities have long been granted certain operational latitude and that both recent federal rules and state laws are now preventing municipalities from managing these types of installations.

        Under these current restrictions, the City of Aurora may not be able to do much, if anything, to help as these situations arise. Many organizations across the nation, such as the Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance are working hard to restore local authority and resist undue erosion in the ability of local decision makers to do what is best for their own communities.

      • You are absolutely right in that most people have no idea that there is public right-of-way at the front of their home. However, until this FCC ruling, the carriers were more considerate and worked with residents, even for devices that go in the public right-of-way.

  2. Doug,
    This is a nice summary of one of the issues we’ve seen. Since October of last year, we’ve worked with more than 30 communities around the country to help them to retain control over whatever regulatory authority is left. Key topics are: Aesthetics, Density/Permitting, Public Safety & Health Risks and preservation of community look and feel. There are things communities can do beyond the templated Municipal League stock documents, so not a lost cause at all.
    But if they aren’t proactive in getting things in ahead of the providers, then they’ve essentially ceded the turf to the providers and the national tower companies.
    Thanks again for your excellent, ongoing blog…

  3. It’s kind of like scooters infiltrating even more of Aurora. At first they were a feel-good novelty, but now there’s a concern that they’ll become too ubiquitous. I also think a ton of mini cell towers in densely populated neighborhoods is going to set off the conspiracy theorists as well as legitimate concerns.

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