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Cities Should Be Prepared for ‘Small Cells’

Many cities have worked with telecom­munications companies that want to place equipment on water tank tow­ers and cell towers on public rights of way. As these telecommunications companies increasingly compete for better wireless coverage, they have be­gun to rely more on specialty compa­nies that are now starting to approach cities about placing “small cells” in the public rights of way.
 
So, what are “small cells”? Small cells add additional wireless band­width to existing cell tower networks, usually to add extra “cell phone juice” for heavily trafficked places and loca­tions that existing cell towers have trouble reaching. For example, small cells add enough bandwidth to keep a strong signal going in locations such as heavy populated events (like a sporting event), parking garages or large buildings.
 
While small cells are actually small­er, involving less equipment and an­tennas than a traditional cell tower, they still pose potential problems and conflicts with a city’s public right of way.
 
Recently, a small cell antenna company contacted cities throughout Georgia about installing small cell utility poles in municipal rights of way and/or placing equipment on existing poles.
 
So, how should cities respond when companies approach them about small cell installations? Here are some questions cities might be asked—and how they may respond.

Does a city require any type of franchise agreement?
No. Federal law prohibits franchis­ing for wireless providers.
 
Are new utility pole installations and replacement poles allowed? And is there a height restriction for new pole installations?
The answer depends on a city’s right of way ordinance and permits.

A right of way ordinance should clearly define the rules concerning in­stallations, poles, height restrictions and any disruptions and interference as a result of obstructions. The ordi­nance needs to explain any legal re­quirements about how and where antennas can be placed, how workers need to go about installing the equip­ment, and how public infrastructure must continue to operate smoothly both during and after the installation.
 
An ordinance should also require that the city maintain a complete in­ventory of existing cable and telecom­munications infrastructure, cell tow­ers and small cell antennas. That way, cities can easily coordinate with other entities so that there are no conflicts or duplication with a telecommunica­tion company’s use of rights of way.
 
What type of permit is required and what is the fee?
As part of a city’s right of way ordi­nance, a right of way or construction permit may be required for small cell companies to place their equipment. Permits should follow state law and procedures for fees, charges, insur­ance and repair requirements. Cities need to follow a vetting process be­fore issuing permits to ensure public safety, wellbeing and quality of life.
 
And while cities can certainly pre­vent or restrict a company’s attempts to place equipment by enforcing an existing right of way ordinance, they cannot arbitrarily discriminate against a small cell antenna provider just be­cause they don’t want its equipment in the city.
 
Who owns the existing poles in the right of way?
It will be one of three entities:
 
  • Your city (unlikely unless you’re an Electric City)
  • Georgia Power or an EMC
  • BellSouth/ATT
Remember, while small cell com­panies still need to follow your ordi­nances and receive a permit, you can only get compensated if these com­panies use city property such as a city building or city-owned pole.
 
How can GMA help?
GMA’s Cable and Telecommunica­tions Management Service members receive specialized help and guidance from our municipal cable and tele­communications experts. We can help with reviewing your current rights of way ordinances and permits, provide customized model rights of way ordi­nances and handle important commu­nications and negotiations with tele­communications companies.
 
If you would like more information please contact BeckyTaylor at 678-686-6276 or by email at btaylor@gmanet.com.
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WHY GMA?
With over 20 years of expertise dealing with cable and telecommunications companies on behalf of cities, we are experienced experts who can negotiate with those companies as your advocate. For your city, that means cable and telecommunications agreements structured by experts that benefit you. From our experience with cities, we routinely see:
  • Returns on investment far exceeding the low annual cost of our services.
  • Cities recouping past underpaid fees, often in the thousands of dollars.
  • Increased rent and right-of-way fees so that you are not undervaluing your city’s property and assets.
Since 2012, a total of over $2 million has been recovered through franchise fee audits for local governments participating in the Telecommunications & Right of Way Management service.