March 2019 Vol. 27, No. 1

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Cities advised to set aesthetic standards for wireless infrastructure

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On September 26, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission approved a ruling focusing on state and local management of small cell wireless infrastructure deployment. “The ruling has key differences from Minnesota’s existing law,” says Kyle Hartnett, League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) staff attorney. “It places additional limitations on cities’ ability to regulate deployment.”

In light of the new FCC ruling, Hartnett encourages city engineers to review which city assets they will make available for wireless infrastructure and set standards for the technology each asset can hold. The ruling applies largely to right-of-way, Hartnett says, “but an argument may be coming that it will apply to any city asset—for example, parks or city hall. And it may include not just small cells, but macrocells as well.”

The biggest issue for Minnesota may relate to aesthetics standards, Hartnett says. Minnesota law allows cities to place “reasonable” aesthetics requirements on a case-by-case basis. The FCC ruling requires that aesthetics standards be “reasonable, no more burdensome than other infrastructure, and objective”—and the standards must be published by April 15, 2019. “If standards aren’t in place, then providers could put wireless wherever they want,” he says, noting that this could be of particular concern in areas with special decorative treatments such as light fixtures.

LMC has developed a model agreement based on Minnesota law and incorporating the FCC ruling. It covers small wireless facility placement; permit approvals, denials, and revocations; fees; and insurance and indemnification. LMC is also tracking efforts by several groups and municipalities that are challenging the ruling in federal court, Hartnett says.

—Pam Snopl, LTAP editor

Case study: Hutchinson

The new 5G communications networks coming this year are causing concern for some city officials. “5G is a completely different technology,” says John Paulson, project, regulatory, and environmental manager with the City of Hutchinson. “In Hutchinson, there would be five tower locations for macro-sites, but there might potentially be 50 small cell sites in just our community.”

As the small cell towers and their accompanying underground infrastructure are added, they have the potential to conflict with factors such as city aesthetic standards and future building projects. “All of a sudden there [are] more utilities and communications infrastructure in the ground, which adds that much more time, risk, and cost associated with rebuilding a roadway,” Paulson says.

Minnesota statutes enacted in 2017 require that cities develop standards for small cell installation. With the help of the League of Minnesota Cities, the City of Hutchinson adopted ordinances that comply with the statutes but retain a degree of municipal control and flexibility.

The 2018 FCC ruling requires even more specification from cities. The ruling makes it more efficient and cost-effective for providers, but any sites that don’t exactly meet the city’s requirements will have to be denied. “Our local right-of-way is managed locally by professionals who know what’s there and how to utilize it,” Paulson says. “If we have to be prescriptive, we start losing some of that flexibility to use common sense.”

The city is in the process of updating its small cell ordinances. The aim is to solidify details—such as the height of the small cell support poles, the color they must be painted, and how far apart they can be spaced—to comply with the FCC ruling.

—Sophia Koch, LTAP freelancer

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