Commentary: Legislatively Adjusting to ‘Small Cells’

Commentary: Legislatively Adjusting to ‘Small Cells’

As anyone with a teenager, or in my case, teenager and elderly parents at home knows, wireless devices are indispensable in today’s internet connected world. There are more wireless devices in use today in the Commonwealth of Virginia then there are people and mobile data usage continues to grow exponentially. Wireless service providers must constantly upgrade their networks to keep up with the ever growing demand.

Traditionally, wireless technology involved large towers that included antennas and other equipment, but over time, advancements in technology allowed the industry to deploy smaller equipment, called “small cells.”

These small cells allow networks to meet the increasing need for wireless data from business, the public and communities, with far fewer of the new cell towers. Small cells can be located on structures like utility poles, streetlights and buildings. Problematically, zoning and right-of-way access needs to catch up with the 21st Century. Often, localities treat small cell installations the same as traditional towers, creating delays and increasing the costs for deployment.

In 2017, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation, that I supported, that created a predictable, accountable and statewide process for the deployment of small cell technology. The bill addressed small cell installation on existing structures such as utility poles, light poles and buildings. This important legislation will accelerate investment in infrastructure to help meet the growing demand for wireless services. However, it only addresses part of the problem, and we are back this session to address the vital need for a process for locating new structures to support wireless equipment, as many readers in the Mount Vernon area will know.

Wireless providers prefer to locate their towers on existing structures, but when needed, the new installations consist mostly of utility pole height structures, and they object to localities treating the small cell installations being like cell towers, as they are much smaller and far less intrusive. Localities, on the other hand, obviously prefer to set their own zoning and land-use regulations. With demand continuing to grow for high-speed wireless access to the internet, video and web applications, something has to give and that is why the General Assembly is attempting to intervene again in this area to find a middle ground.

Two bills making their way through the General Assembly, HB1258 and SB405, establish a statewide, consistent administrative approval process for new structures under 50 feet high, similar to a typical telephone or power pole. The legislation sets up a predictable approval timeline while preserving a locality’s jurisdiction over historic sites and other local considerations.

I have mixed feelings on this initiative, and have voted against the bill on the floor of the House of Delegates. However, that does not mean I am hostile to the concept nor necessarily going to vote against the final bill. These new bills establish a fee schedule that can be below the market rate of the land. I think this is inappropriate, and while the cost ladder might fit in rural areas, it undercuts the ability of urban and suburban jurisdictions to request a fair market value for the land the telecoms would purchase or lease.

The other issue is the bill needs language to mitigate against costs of future undergrounding, such as what we want on Richmond Highway. Such language needs to include anticipated undergrounding as a part of any future transportation improvement included in a comprehensive plan, for example.

I hope these issues get resolved in the final version of the bill negotiated in conference because it does have some very good provisions within the language, including preserving viewsheds when the poles exceed 50 feet; allowing localities to limit the amount of new structures being installed; and it indicates a clear preference for co-location on existing structures, allowing localities to reject requests when there are existing alternative structures nearby.

This bill also protects historic districts, prohibiting locating wireless structures within the boundaries of any local, state or federal historic district. Most importantly for our community, it would prohibit installing new poles in areas where utilities are underground, or are planned to be placed underground.

I do not object to making the process more predictable, efficient and competitive. This would create a more attractive environment for wireless technology investment in Virginia which is very important. I plan to support the final version of the legislation if it has the protections I have set out in this article.