G-whiz: New cell networks coming to Edmonds

City officials have their say in how 5G providers can access infrastructure in town
By Brian Soergel | Apr 04, 2019

The next iteration of wireless cellular technology is coming, but Edmonds officials and councilmembers want to make sure the installation of small-cell towers – needed to support that technology – won’t wreak a hodgepodge of blight in the community.

Welcome to 5G, the next (and fifth) generation of wireless cellular networks, which promise data speeds 100 times faster than the 4G technology, whose increased capacity allowed for the ubiquity of smartphones, Netflix, and the cloud we’re all using now.

With 5G, a high-def movie that now takes a few minutes to download could be yours in a matter of seconds. (Of course, we’ll all have to buy new phones to take advantage.)

For those keeping score, peak download speeds could reach 20 gigabits per second, compared to 1 gigabit per second available on 4G, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Sounds great, right?

But although 5G technology is already here, infrastructure – new, existing, or both – is needed to make it hum. Wireless companies’ small-cell antennas are designed to be mounted to existing light standards and utility poles and be located along transportation corridors, streets and places where people gather.

Unlike 4G, small cells are low-power, miniature base stations that cover a small geographic footprint, placed about 800 feet or so apart. That’s why there needs to be a lot of them – possibly hundreds of relay stations in Edmonds.

Michael Clugston, a senior planner for the City of Edmonds, has been working with City attorney Jeff Taraday and councilmembers to finalize resolutions and city code amendments to protect the City’s design and right-of-way standards before the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) self-imposed April 14 deadline for implementation of aesthetic rules.

A recap: On Sept. 27, 2018, the FCC issued a wordy order titled "Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment."

The order adopted new rules limiting state and local government power in treating applications for the installation of small wireless facilities.

“It came to be because the wireless industry lobbied the FCC hard about how they thought local governments weren't moving quickly enough to facilitate small-cell deployment,” Clugston said.

The order went into effect Jan. 14, telling local jurisdictions that they had until April 14 to adopt any reasonable aesthetic rules for small-cell deployments. Councilmembers approved interim rules for small-cell deployments Feb. 12.

The Planning Board discussed the interim ordinance Feb. 13 and scheduled a public hearing for Feb. 27. City Council picked the topic back up in mid-March, considered refinements, concluded with another public hearing and, finally, council approval on Tuesday, April 2, of an ordinance concerning aesthetics to meet the April 14 deadline.

The City had hoped to establish buffers around schools for protecting child safety. But City Attorney Jeff Taraday said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 preempts the City's ability to regulate based on health impacts.

The ordinance does, however, add safety signage to small-cell installations.

Representatives from wireless providers – including T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T – have certainly had their say, making numerous appearances at City Council meetings in Edmonds. They reinforced the need for 5G technology.

Alan Barr of Network Engineering Group, representing Verizon, said Verizon is struggling to meet the needs of the community. Mobile data usage has increased seven times since 2015. Small cells in the public right-of-way on existing utility are needed to meet the demand, he told councilmembers.

Ken Lyons, representing AT&T, said the way people and businesses communicate has changed. Nearly two-thirds of Washington residents do not have home phones and rely on wireless networks, he said, adding that society was effectively landlined for 100 years and has gone wireless in the last 15.

Telecom companies also note that 5G is needed to advance new-age technology such as self-driving vehicles, remote medicine and so-called smart appliances needing 24/7 connections.

No one argues those points.

But at last week’s council meeting, councilmembers passed a resolution that requests an update of the federal government’s studies concerning possible 5G health risks. Councilmember Mike Nelson added to the resolution – which has the support of 126 local government leaders and 132 public power utilities across 47 states – endorsement of a bill overturning the FCC’s regulations limiting the ability of local governments to regulate the deployment of 5G wireless infrastructure.

Clugston provided a letter from Next Century Cities, which supports mayors and community leaders across the country as they seek to ensure that everyone has fast, affordable and reliable internet access, that called the FCC’s 5G order “a blatant effort … to strengthen the hand of carriers in negotiations with local governments over small-cell deployment and to limit the ability of local governments to negotiate in the public interest around small cells.”

The nonprofit group said “the good news is that the FCC has left local governments with some power and flexibility to enact reasonable regulations governing small cell deployments.”

So what will it all look like?

City staff and councilmembers agree that their top choice would be to conceal any telecom equipment inside a hollow steel power pole, even though wireless officials say that option is currently available on the market.

Last week, Councilmember Dave Teitzel referred to the letter from Snohomish County PUD:

“Snohomish PUD understands the City of Edmonds prefers the pursuit of hollow steel utility poles with all cell equipment concealed. Currently there are designs for collocated street light poles that conceal most of the equipment for cell phone apparatus. However at this time there is no available design for utility power poles with concealed small cell equipment.”

But none of this is happening right away, and City staff believes the poles could eventually be fabricated to meet its requirements.


“Private companies will be installing the antennas and related equipment just like they have been, and customers will pay for the rollout of the technology in their wireless bills,” Clugston said.

“It's like cable TV in that way. The City doesn't get much out of it, but can charge fees to cover our costs for reviewing building and right-of-way permits. Whoever owns the pole or building where the small cell goes – PUD or landowner – will get a small payment for the use of their space.”

To learn more about Edmonds’ rules on small-cell wireless, go to Chapter 20.50 of Edmonds Community Development Code at codepublishing.com/WA/Edmonds/.



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