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Virginia Beach Leaders Have Concerns About 5G Antennas

The challenge for the Virginia city is trying to balance being a modern destination with the lack of control over where new poles will be installed. Some have voiced concern about devices cluttering the city skyline.

(TNS) — Wireless carriers are beginning to lay the groundwork for new technology that will allow people to use their cellphones at higher speeds.

A network of antennas attached to poles as high as 40 feet will be scattered throughout the resort area and in suburban neighborhoods across the city.

These short-range, small cell antennas that look like mini rockets enable dense population areas to handle increases in data use. They'll also serve a new, fifth-generation (5G) technology that's coming to the region. 5G uses high-frequency waves to support faster wireless connections.

For cellphone users, the goal is to ultimately boost speeds for internet browsing, video streaming, downloads and apps.

But the idea of more metal clutter in the resort area is irking some resort leaders. Utility poles and equipment already interrupt the free-flowing landscape, they argue.

"These poles, they take up space," said Billy Almond, chairman of the Resort Advisory Commission's planning and design committee. "They’re an immovable object near the bike path or pedestrian ways."

Citing safety issues, particularly on the Boardwalk, the commission is hoping to gain some control over where poles may be installed. It could be a long shot.

"From the city level, there’s not much we can do," Debra Bryan, an associate city attorney, told commission members recently.

The General Assembly began passing legislation two years ago to cut through red tape in the permitting process at the city level. It allows wireless carriers to erect 5G poles on public property with little city input.

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission also issued a ruling to support the implementation of small cell antennas across the U.S. That ruling includes a "shot clock" measure that prevents localities from stalling on requests from wireless providers.

Dozens of small cell tower applications are currently being approved each month in Virginia Beach. More are expected.

The challenge for the city is trying to balance being a modern destination with the lack of control over where new poles will be installed.

"We want the latest technology for our visitors," Bryan said. "We want them to be able to connect."

The cell antennas are not just a concern at the Oceanfront. These poles are coming to a neighborhood near you.

Tech race

Three years ago, wireless providers began urging state legislators to create regulations to streamline applications to erect cell antennas on public property. It had become too difficult for them to work with private property owners, Bryan said.

A national push to beat China in a so-called "5G race" has helped bolster the industry. Nearly two dozen states supported regulations, and a handful of cities, including Denver, Chicago and Atlanta, are rolling out 5G service today. Consumers need a new 5G phone to access the network.

Virginia was one of the first states to adopt laws on the placement of such poles on public property.

Five wireless service providers currently hold franchise agreements with Virginia Beach to install small cell antennas in the public rights of way. There are no limits as to how many can go in a given area. The range is about 1,500 feet, according to industry experts.

A small cell antenna and all its exposed elements can range from the size of a pizza box to a refrigerator. There's also underground fiber and electrical components that could be placed above ground.

When the FCC adopted the measure last year to streamline installations, providers kicked it into high gear.

They've been submitting dozens of permit applications at a time, with as many as 140 a few months ago, putting a strain on the city, Bryan said.

The documents that wireless providers file with the city include a plan for the site and traffic control during construction as well as information about the equipment to be installed.

After the mass shooting in the municipal center building where permits and inspection offices are located, reviews of the applications slowed down for a couple of weeks.

Five city employees are now tasked with inspecting new applications for poles in the public domain. But after a certain number of days — which can range from 60 to 90 depending on whether the antenna will go on an existing pole or a new one — the application is granted under state law.

"We have more to look at and we have to take less time to do it," Bryan said.

Permit fees are capped at $250 for attaching to an existing structure and $500 for a new pole. "Nothing that would allow us to fund another position in our Planning Department," Bryan said.

Poles pop up

Kendra Adams has rented a brick townhome in Southhall Quarter off First Colonial Road for 30 years. The neatly landscaped end unit is near Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.

One day this spring, she came home and heard a loud noise. She stood on a chair in her backyard and looked over her fence where she saw men digging a hole.

She soon learned that Jacobs Engineering Group, on behalf of AT&T Wireless, would be laying underground fiber for a 5G cell tower. A site plan for the 25-foot pole that she and her neighbors obtained from the city showed the antenna would be installed a few feet from her upstairs bedroom window.

Adams wondered why the company hadn't chosen the nearby city park, or even the grassy corner several feet away, near a service drive. She worried about how it would look, whether it would pose a health risk and lower her property value.

George Okaty, Southhall Quarter Civic League president, and Adams reached out to city and state legislators when they couldn't get answers from AT&T, they said.

After listening to the neighbors' concerns, the contractor has changed its plan and will install the pole near the service drive and away from Adams' window, an engineer for the firm confirmed Wednesday.

In Virginia Beach and Norfolk, five small cell franchisees have been permitted on existing and new poles in the public rights of way. Norfolk has nearly 100 small cell antennas, including in Ghent and near Old Dominion University, according to city spokeswoman Lori Crouch.

Verizon and AT&T combined have more than 100 active permits for the equipment in Virginia Beach now. They are looking for opportunities to attach their antennas to existing street light poles, which are owned by Dominion Virginia Power, where possible, Bryan said.

If the wireless providers can’t find a pole to use, they install a new one.

Many of the existing ones on the Boardwalk can't support the weight of the antenna equipment, Mike Eason, the city's resort administrator, said at the commission meeting.

In some cases, poles look different at the site than the plans submitted in the permit application, Bryan said.

"Right now we don’t really have a mechanism to hold them accountable," she said. "An inspector comes back and says, 'What happened?' and now it's already there. I don't know what the answer is to that but hire more inspectors and go out every day and see what they're doing."

AT&T has submitted applications to attach antennas to city-owned light poles on Atlantic Avenue, and Verizon wants to put them on the Boardwalk, Bryan said.

The first pole at the Oceanfront was erected in the spring on the northwest corner of Pacific and Norfolk avenues.

It failed city inspection in May because it didn't match the site plan, Bryan said. The electrical meter wasn't mounted on the pole as presented in the application. Instead, it's on a pedestal several feet away. The city is holding their electrical permit until they fix it.

Bryan is hopeful that the city can quickly develop aesthetic criteria for the poles within federal guidelines. A committee is currently drafting the criteria, according to Bobby Tajan, the city's planning director.

Among the FCC's guidelines, the city cannot impose tighter restrictions than they have for any other utility pole.

Without much getting in the way of the antennas being erected, another alternative would be to fight the federal government to ban them.

"There are some cities that are just saying 'No,'" Bryan said. "We’re a tourist town. ... We do want our people to be connected — to take our selfies at the beach."

©2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.