In the coming years, wireless service providers could be installing thousands of small cell antennae and related equipment throughout the District, as many as four per block. The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) is currently formulating Small Cell Design Guidelines to govern the placement and design of the lower-lying mobile network units on District utility poles and other public spaces.
Small cells are low-power miniature antennas that supplement larger cell towers and will be necessary to implement the newer, faster 5G service when it begins to be offered in the United States sometime in 2019.
Small cell installation throughout the District is not up for debate. The District has already entered into Master License Agreements (MLA) allowing five communications companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Extenet, Mobilitie and Crown Castle, to install the units throughout the city. The MLAs allow the companies to install units on cobra-neck street light poles and wooden utility poles or to install new, stand-alone poles on streets and named alleys, but does not allow units to be installed on Washington Globe light poles.
“The District of Columbia is a strong advocate of broadband infrastructure deployment. Coverage and connectivity are drivers for the economic growth of the District, the innovation of businesses, and the education of its residents,” said the Office of the Chief Technology Officer on their website. “To that end, the District has developed efficient and streamlined processes for providers to install wireless communications facilities (“small cells”) on poles throughout the District.”
Network providers say the small cells improve the quality of wireless service throughout the District with faster data coverage and capacity.
“In particular, the benefit of improved cell phone service means when you pick up your phone to make a call, you’re not going to have as many dropped calls,” said Carly Didden, Government Relations Manager for Crown Castle, the world’s largest provider of wireless infrastructure at a recent meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B.
Didden said small cells would help address issues at events like the Capitals championship parade, when even with a signal many people were unable to place calls because cellular towers were overloaded.
“What these facilities will do is boost the available capacity, so that we don’t have those kinds of problems,” she said.
2,500 Small Cells
The installation of small cells will facilitate 5G, the next generation of mobile network. Most 5G signals travel relatively short distances and will work only if there’s a clear, direct line-of-sight between the antenna and the device receiving the signal. In order to address these issues some estimates say that small cells will need to be installed every 250 or 300 feet, and it is possible that each company will need to deploy a separate set for their unique equipment.
To develop comprehensive guidelines for the installation of these units, the District government worked with DDOT, the Office of Planning (DCOP), the DC Historic Preservation Office (HPO), the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC). The guidelines will serve as a loose map for how, when and where small cell technology will be placed in DC.
“The equipment is not small,” wrote Nelson, noting that the installation of thousands of units throughout the city raises issues of clutter, effect on viewsheds, historic preservation and the District’s trees.
“The four major carriers in DC have taken the position that they need their own cell installations because of differences in their equipment that might interfere,” she added. “That would likely mean four or more 31-foot high poles with attached equipment in every city block.”
As many as 2,500 units could be installed by the five companies throughout the city. Crown Castle alone wants to install 850 low-powered antennas connected by fiber optic cables.
In a letter to DDOT about the proposed guidelines, Capitol Hill Restoration Society (CHRS) President Elizabeth Nelson expressed concern about the possible total number of antennae throughout the neighborhoods.
ANC 6C Commissioners agreed, arguing in a letter to DDOT that more limitations on small cell installation were necessary. In their review of the draft guidelines, they noted that the number of antennae per block is restricted based on block size, but that the largest blocks can still have up to 12 units each. They requested DDOT guidelines include a limit on the total overall number of cells that can be installed by a company in the District.
The draft guidelines also state that stand-alone poles should not be constructed if existing poles can be used to mount the small cells. The guidelines also limit the height of both pole and antennae to a height not exceeding 31 feet or ten percent higher than existing poles, whichever is greater. ANC 6C suggested the limit be the lesser rather than the greater of the two. As is, ten-foot antennae could be placed on a twenty-foot pole.
The removal of trees and placement within a 15-foot root zone for the purpose of stand-alone pole installation is forbidden by the guidelines, but they are silent on trimming of the canopy, and the ANC suggested that the guidelines specify that no more than 5 percent of a tree can be removed to accommodate antennae.
President of Trees for Capitol Hill Beth Purcell said that although the organization had received verbal assurances from DDOT that tree pruning would not be allowed, they were unsure if the provision would be included in the final version of the small cell guidelines, after the companies’ comments have been incorporated.
“Given that some companies are saying that direct line of sight is required for small cells to work and that there could be four or more small cell installations per block, pruning, if allowed, would devastate the tree canopy,” said Purcell. “This would ruin the streetscape and cause environmental harm. And undo decades of effort on the part of our organization, Casey Trees, and DDOT’s Urban Forestry Administration.”
A spokesperson for DDOT said that “The current draft guidelines do not allow trees to be trimmed, removed, or negatively impacted by small cell installations,” noting that the Urban Forestry Division will review applications for their impact on trees.
The wireless companies say they are well aware of the concerns regarding the aesthetic impact of the units. The MLAs require installations to be “unobtrusive, harmonious with surroundings and streamlined in appearance,” and could involve camouflaging units.
A spokesperson for Crown Castle said that the company “understands that each community has its own character,” and would design installations to preserve the aesthetics of distinct communities. At the ANC meeting, Didden said that cabinets could be wrapped in decorative art, nestled near furniture or potted plants, or otherwise disguised.
The companies are required by MLA agreements to file one public space applications for multiple small cell installations. In the case of Crown Castle, one application can cover up to fifteen streetlight installations or three continuous city blocks. The applications are used to assess the safety impacts and technical specifications of the devices as well as the aesthetic impact of the installations.
The public record for an initial hearing on the draft guidelines closed Oct. 29, but DDOT Public Space Committee will continue to take comments emailed to Public.SpaceCommittee@dc.gov, said a spokesperson. There is no expected date for guidelines to be finalized, and installation cannot begin until after guidelines are finalized and all Public Space applications and permits are approved.
Learn more about the District’s small cell initiative and draft design guidelines by visiting https://ddot.dc.gov/page/ddot-small-cell.