5g cell tower at Lee St. and Van Buren St. in Little Rock Brian Chilson

As telecommunications companies improve their infrastructure to pave the way for 5G technology, a new type of wireless tower is popping up around city streets, sidewalks and yards and citizens have little say in where they are placed.

Most of these new installations, called small wireless facilities, require the installation of new wooden or metal poles in the public right of way, such as the area between streets and sidewalks. The technology, placed at the top of the pole, is usually a thin cylinder or small white box, but the new pole can be an unwanted addition to a neighborhood landscape. 

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Thanks to rulings by the Federal Communications Commission, residents don’t have an opportunity to speak up when these new cell towers pop up in their neighborhood and cities don’t have much say either. In Little Rock, companies file an application for small wireless facilities with the Public Works Department, which must approve or deny the permit within 60 days, according to the FCC. The process does not include a public comment period.

Ragan Sutterfield, who lives in Little Rock’s Stifft Station neighborhood, recently became concerned about the issue when he noticed a surveyor walking around his driveway making plans for new towers in the area. One of the towers is planned for the right of way in a neighbor’s yard and Sutterfield wishes citizens had a say in the matter. 

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“There’s no public input,” Sutterfield said. “There’s no chance for the community to kind of determine what they would like in their neighborhood as far as infrastructure goes.”    

Telecommunications companies are installing the technology to improve wireless service. The new facilities include some improvements to 4G service as well as offer the newer 5G technology, which provides service that is faster. The improved service will allow for increased data usage for a future that includes the “internet of things” in which more devices like refrigerators are easily connected to the web. The 5G technology comes with a tradeoff, however, since it requires a high number of smaller, denser towers instead of a single tall tower to transfer its signal.

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The technology is placed atop poles, which vary in size and appearance and can be no taller than 50 feet. Many of the poles are wooden or metal and some have a distinct appearance meant to fit in with a historic neighborhood. A series of decorative black poles, about 26 feet in height, line President Clinton Avenue in the River Market District. 

By the end of 2019, there were 171 small cell wireless facilities (as they are called) installed around Little Rock, with Verizon and AT&T accounting for 153 of them, according to City of Little Rock traffic engineer Travis Herbner. Verizon has another 50 facilities in the review process and could eventually have around 200 facilities in Little Rock, Herbner said.

The telecommunications companies place the towers in the public right of way, sometimes in the area between the street and a house, and homeowners don’t have an opportunity to provide input. In return, the companies pay the city a small fee between $20 and $200 per facility.

In order to place one of the facilities, telecommunications companies such as AT&T, Verizon and Extenet file a Franchise Permit Application for Small Wireless Facilities with the city. The applications include construction plans, drawings and descriptions of equipment and must be approved or denied by the city within 60 days. The FCC has stated that it expects any locality that misses the 60-day deadline to issue any necessary permits or authorizations without further delay.

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Rulings by the FCC have tied the hands of cities, which might like to have more say in the placement of the towers or require a higher fee in exchange for the use of the public right of way where the facilities are placed.

“Part of the problem is that the technology is advancing faster than any legal system could deal with it,” Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter said.

The move to 5G has been complicated for cities nationwide, with the promise of improved technology weighed against the burden of more infrastructure in the public right of way. While the improvements to internet service have been championed by Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. and his predecessor Mark Stodola, the issue of where the towers are sited in cities across the country has been a bit more difficult. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been deeply critical of the FCC, which limited the ability of cities to impose restrictions or costs on the placement of the facilities.

Tom Cochran, the CEO and executive director of the Conference, issued a statement in 2018 in which he called the FCC decision “a misapplication of federal power to confiscate local taxpayer property. … Mayors and other local and state government leaders rightly and strongly oppose these actions.”

While there may be an argument over tower location, there’s no debate over the rise of internet usage, which is at an all-time high, according to CTIA, which represents the nation’s wireless industry. Each American has an average of 1.2 connected devices today and collectively used 15.7 trillion megabytes of data in 2017, which amounted to a quadrupling of the data from just three years before. As a result, there will be a need for 800,000 small cells nationwide in the next few years, according to CTIA.

As for the towers in Little Rock, the city is using what power it has to require the towers be placed with minimal impact to the public. A city ordinance, approved unanimously by the city Board in 2017, encourages the companies to co-locate their facilities on existing street infrastructure such as streetlights and traffic lights. In cases where colocation is not an option, the city has required the companies to install the new tower using poles that fit into historic neighborhoods better than typical galvanized metal poles. 

The pole at Lee Avenue and Van Buren Street, for instance, falls within the Hillcrest Historic District, so the city required AT&T to use a pole that was more consistent with the historic nature of the area than a galvanized metal pole. As a result, the tower is a tall, black fluted structure with a 20th century look, according to Herbner. The wireless technology is housed within the cylinder at the top of the pole.

Brian Chilson
5g cell tower at Lee and Van Buren Streets in Little Rock

“We try to make them a little bit less conspicuous,” Herbner said. “What I’m trying to do is minimize the impact for the public.”

A number of black wireless towers also dot the landscape along President Clinton Avenue in the Rivermarket District. Owned by Extenet, these poles replaced the existing streetlights and now house both the streetlights and the wireless facilities on poles that were approved by the Rivermarket District Design Review Committee, according to Herbner. Extenet now maintains and pays the bills for the streetlights in addition to its wireless facilities.

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Citizens like Sutterfield don’t deny the importance of the technology but would like to have a voice in the process.  

I think my concerns are not tied to the technology itself so much as the idea [that] I think local government should control local streets and right of way and that doesn’t seem to be a possibility here,” Sutterfield said. “And I think that’s a problem.”