Mitchell, S.D., to Set 5G Antenna Policy Ahead of Growth

The planning commission gathered Monday to determine what the future of small cell antennas will look like in the town before more aggressive deployments in 2019.

by Marcus Traxler, The Daily Republic / December 11, 2018

(TNS) — The Mitchell, S.D., Planning Commission discussed Monday what the future for cellular coverage in the city will look like, expecting the growth of small cell and 5G technology in the future.

Just how many small boxes, new towers and antennas will need to be built or added is not yet clear, but the city's leaders would like to get their rules on the books before 5G technology really takes off, which could be as soon as next year.

"It's going to be a lot smaller antennas and a lot more of them more closely compacted," said Mitchell City Attorney Justin Johnson. "Probably one every couple of blocks to provide the density they'll need for this type of coverage."

Johnson has been involved with the drafting of a model ordinance with the South Dakota Municipal Attorneys' Association, which is an affiliate of the South Dakota Municipal League. During the Planning Commission's regular meeting Monday, Johnson presented a 17-page draft ordinance that would regulate permits for small cell wireless communication facilities, or SCFs, as they're known.

Generally, small cell technology uses smaller towers, small equipment and a shorter support pole than traditional, or macrocell towers. For example, SDN Communications, which has been assisting Verizon in the rollout of small cell technology in South Dakota, uses 32-foot poles. Using fiber cables to transmit the data, the new technology is geared toward improving data coverage in areas where there's large crowds, like the Corn Palace, or a geographic gap in services. But small cells enhance data within a very small area, — between 1,000 and 2,000 feet — compared to the miles and miles of a traditional cell phone tower. With 5G, phone calls will still generally transmitted via a macrocell tower.

In Kansas City, Missouri — an example used during the meeting — about 75,000 small cell towers would be needed to cover the entire city limits. Terry Johnson, the deputy public works director for Mitchell, estimated a similar translation for Mitchell would be about 700 towers. But city officials generally agreed Monday that Mitchell wouldn't require blanket coverage at the start, or that many towers.

"I don't know how many of these we're going to see in Mitchell," said Justin Johnson.

In September, the Federal Communications Commission passed an order that would make it easier for telecom companies to deploy the new technology by superseding state and local-level regulations by standardizing the fee structure cities can charge for reviewing projects and limiting the review period to 60 days for putting small cells on existing poles and 90 days on new structures. The FCC has said the rules are necessary to streamline the rules and the buildout for 5G services, but government bodies have challenged the order in court, arguing that their abilities to charge for access to public utility poles is restricted. Cities can charge up to $500 for an initial application fee for five small cells and then a $270 annual fee per cell for accessing the right of way.

"It put a lot of restrictions and road blocks into what a city can and cannot regulate," city attorney Johnson said.

An agreement would likely have to be worked out to use power poles in Mitchell, Terry Johnson said, because the city of Mitchell doesn't own all of the power poles in the city. A majority are owned by NorthWestern Energy, he said.

The rollout of 5G is about to take off in 2019 nationally. Phonemaker Samsung expects to have 5G phones next year, while Apple will likely wait until 2020 to sell a iPhone with 5G capabilities, The Washington Post reported earlier this month. SDN has already helped cities like Sioux Falls, Yankton, Brookings, Aberdeen and Sturgis prepare deploy some level of small cell technologies. With Mitchell having a small hub of telecommunications businesses, it's possible the city would be among the leaders in the state rollout.

The commission discussed a proposed ordinance to regulate small cell facilities. The units would have to meet the following rules: that each antenna is located inside an enclosure of no more than three cubic feet of volume and that the provider's equipment should not be larger than 28 cubic feet in volume. The facility would have to be mounted on a utility pole or structure no taller than 50 feet in height or be no more than 10 percent taller than other adjacent structures or substantially similar design. Applicants are also directed to follow a stealth design, to camouflage or conceal the small cell and to have it blend into the surroundings.

Generally, the applications would be treated like a building permit, but if an applicant couldn't meet location or design requirements of the ordinance, they could ask for a special review process. In Mitchell, under the proposal, the Planning Commission would hear that review.

In a presentation by the city attorney Johnson, some southern cities had the technology attached some existing wires on telecom poles. Commission Chairman Jay Larson said he was particularly concerned about the amount of weight the new technology could add to poles or wires and possible issues if an ice storm hits those wires.

"If they've already got a bunch of junk on them, and you hang a bunch more junk on them, that concerns me," Larson said. "Maybe I'm overthinking it, but I'm still concerned about it."

Justin Johnson added the FCC order is scheduled to take effect in January, so he would like to see the city of Mitchell enact an ordinance soon to have something on the books.

©2018 The Daily Republic (Mitchell, S.D.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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