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Council tables request for new small cell antennas

Verizon calls them new sky furniture, Ward 5 Councillor Barbara Murphy calls them skyline litter and analysts who keep tabs on the wireless data industry call small cell antennas inevitable.

Last December, Cellco, a company that provides equipment for Verizon Wireless, asked the City Council to approve its request to install small cell antennas on utility poles on Eastern Avenue and Salem Street. The antennas, which are three-foot canisters roughly one foot in diameter, work together with larger rooftop or free-standing towers to increase the speed and capacity of wireless service.

But the council had already approved Cellco’s request to install three small cell antennas on poles on Highland Avenue and Summer and Newland Streets several months earlier. When Cellco came back with a request for two more small cell antennas, councillors balked.

“I think this is something that’s going to be coming in all over the place,” said Ward 6 Councillor Neil Kinnon. “I think you folks will be back here over and over again and I would like to know what the plans are.”

Councillors voted to table the request and asked Cellco for more information about future small cell antennas. They asked for information on large and small cell towers in communities surrounding Malden, including specific locations and fees paid by wireless companies. They requested a five-year forecast for small cell antenna installations.

Some communities have crafted small cell antenna ordinances, and councillors wanted to review those regulations. And they had questions about other companies, such as Sprint and AT&T and their small cell antenna plans and ambitions.

Last April, Cellco sent the councillors a report, roughly two inches thick, with information and answers to their questions. But councillors did not receive copies of that report until this week, shortly before a Cellco rep was back at the podium to continue the hearing started last year.

Councillors agreed to table Cellco’s petition again, this time so they could read the report they requested. Several councillors also shared old and new concerns.

“Why do we want to do this?” asked Ward 7 Councillor Neal Anderson. “Are we doing the right thing for residents? We need a review from the legal department. We need to make sure we are not approving something we will be sorry about.”

Ward 3 Councillor John Matheson suggested Verizon’s need for small cell antennas to increase the capacity and speed of wireless service is driven by the advertising pop-ups and videos embedded in many websites. Matheson said the council had talked about a permitting process for small cell antennas last December and added that that might be a better way to handle petitions to install them.

Cellco’s plan calls for crowning utility poles with the grey canister antennas, wiring and fixtures. The company contends that nobody notices the equipment because it is roughly 40 feet above ground level.

But Councillor-at-Large Craig Spadafora said anyone who lives on the second floor of a building will notice a small cell antenna, and the view isn’t pretty. He suggested that Cellco design and install new poles with the antennas and wiring tucked inside and out of sight.

And Murphy again stressed that small cell antennas may become skyline litter. “If we are going to allow this to happen – and that’s a big if – we need a standard,” she said. “I won’t approve any of these for anyone until we have a discussion about this.”

But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) might soon undercut the council’s ability to protect Malden’s skyline. Verizon has faced resistance to small cell antennas in cities and towns throughout the country. In response, the company has asked the FCC to limit a municipality’s ability to reject small cell antennas.

Verizon claims such decisions interfere with and limit communication services, which are protected under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Verizon has asked the FCC to limit the timeframe for decisions on small cell antennas and to allow companies to install the equipment if communities fail to provide compelling reasons against the antennas within 90 to 120 days.

The FCC has agreed to review the rules and is now accepting public comments on the proposed changes.

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