During a public hearing about design standards associated with the unshackling of wireless infrastructure across the United States, Wilsonville City Councilors and staff were not buying the narrative that industry stalwarts were selling.
After employees and consultants of Verizon Wireless and AT&T said Wilsonville's proposed design standards for fourth and fifth generation wireless systems (4G and 5G) were unworkable, Councilor Charlotte Lehan rebuked wireless providers' attempt to convince the City to reverse its decades of work to underground facilities. Councilor Ben West lamented the City turning into a community reminiscent of Star Wars or Space Adventures (due to the potential abundance of wires and antennas on city streets) and Mayor Tim Knapp attempted to call the communications industry's bluff. Meanwhile, the council passed the first reading of a resolution for its new policies for small wireless facilities at the meeting Monday, Jan. 7 and will consider the second reading at the Jan. 24 council meeting.
Last September, the Federal Communications Commission limited governments' ability to regulate small wireless facilities in the public right-of-way and gave cities just a few months to implement policy changes that would allow the proliferation of such facilities. As Telecom Law Firm Managing Partner Jonathan Kramer put it at a November work session, the new rules will mean that wireless infrastructure, including poles, wires and antennas, will be "more ubiquitous than fire hydrants."
"I think the communications industry is going to want a piece of that (Wilsonville's economic output) and are going to find a way to be here," Knapp said. "I don't expect us to get left behind."
"I am absolutely terrified of the fact that we could potentially have what we see here," West said.
To mitigate the potential of eyesores, the City of Wilsonville is in the process of passing various design standards to camoflage the installations, including requiring the placement of antennas inside a container on the pole (called cantennas), that most cables and wires be located underground, that free standing poles must be no less than 250 feet away from other free standing poles and that poles cannot be located in front of entrances to businesses, among many other requirements.
Verizon and AT&T provided testimony during the public hearing while T-Mobile sent a letter to the City voicing concerns similar to its competitors. For one, they wished they had been included in the planning process.
"Small cells are an essential part Verizon's continuing efforts to stay ahead of increasing demands for wireless service in Wilsonville," Verizon wrote in a statement. "We appreciate the city's desire to get ahead of this need by implementing policies and procedures for permiting small cells. However, wireless industry representatives were not given the opportunity to work with city staff to develop reasonable and workable design recommendations before the Small Wireless Facility Design Standards & Code Amendments were drafted."
Also, Verizon consultant Kim Allen said the "cantenna" requirement would mean that 5G technology would be impossible to implement in Wilsonville. She also said that requiring the wireless companies to underground the radios associated with the facilities won't work either because the facilities could more easily corrode underground than if covered by protective material above ground.
"5G cantennas can't be shrouded. They can't even be painted. They are that sensitive," she said. "This would effectively prohibit the deployment of 5G in Wilsonville."
Allen asked the City for a chance to work with wireless providers to tweak the policies.
"You have the time to get this right and we would very much appreciate the opportunity (to work with you)," Allen said.
Wilsonville Assistant City Attorney Amanda Guile-Hinman told the Spokesman that the City enlisted Kramer, discussed standards with pole manufacturers and looked at other cities that have had successful proposals, such as Denver, to craft the policies. And she was confident that the City's proposed standards would not inhibit 5G technology deployment and that the City's cantenna requirement is not outside the norm of what many other cities are requiring.
"Pretty much every standard across the country discusses cantennas, or essentially some type of shrouding that encases the antenna," Guile-Hinman said.
She also said the City had already considered the potential for consistent rain to damage facilities and that's why they decided to keep some of the facilities aboveground.
"Their (public works staff) feedback was some of the equipment could be housed underground and some should be accessible above ground. That's why we allow for some equipment to be housed within the poll," Guile-Hinman said. "It's less expensive (for wireless providers) to put equipment above ground than under ground. That's not a compelling enough reason for us to get away from our general undergrounding requirement throughout the city."
Wilsonville City Attorney Barbara Jacobson pointed out that Wilsonville's proposal allowed the City to tweak the design standards later if they ended up being too restrictive. Also, she said the City needed to pass the policies so that it could meet the Jan. 14 FCC deadline for some policy changes, including the implementation of application review "shot clocks," which require the City to take no more than 90 days to review applications for a new pole and 60 days for facilities that are located on a City pole. So even though the FCC recently extended the deadline for passing design standards to April, the City felt it needed to pass standards now.
"There was a big push by the industry to have the FCC pass this more quickly. That's why we're in the position we're in," Jacobson said. "We would be happy to meet with the industry. And then we can amend design standards administratively."
Verizon engineer Steve Coon said uncertainties regarding the exact cost of the city's right-of-way fee would spark cost uncertainty for wireless companies.
"We like predictability and we need to have predictability to determine what our costs will be," he said.
But Councilor Charlotte Lehan and Knapp said the City is also working amid uncertainty about which policies would work and how much they should charge for deployment. For instance, because the FCC forbids cities from charging a privilege tax for the use of right-of-way, the City has to estimate the "actual cost" of housing the infrastructure to determine what to charge.
"There is no predictability for us in this. We don't know what we can charge, what standards will work, yet we have to work on an extremely tight timeframe," Lehan said. "It's put cities in a bind. What's our choice here?"
Though the pole placements and cantennas could become ubiquitous, Guile-Hinman hoped that the City's standards are so well considered, it won't significantly impact the Wilsonville's aesthetics.
"Our goal is as a person walks down the street it's not noticeable," she said. "We want it to be incorporated into the general look of the area."