The villages of Riverside and Brookfield have moved to pass laws regulating – to the extent the state has allowed them – the installation of wireless receivers on existing and potentially new utility poles as the telecommunications industry rolls out its 5G technology over the next few years.

Exactly how these “small-cell” antennae and their related equipment will impact communities is unclear – their number and locations are unknown at this point – but the Illinois General Assembly has given municipalities little room to regulate their placement.

The Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner in April and effective June 1, allows telecommunications companies wide latitude in locating the small-cell technology.

For example, the facilities are allowed by right and are not subject to local zoning review when a proposed small-cell location is within a public right of way or a utility easement that’s small-cell compatible, like ComEd easements.

In addition, more than one provider can seek to locate a facility, and the related equipment, on a certain pole.

While utility poles in Brookfield are often relegated to alleys, in Riverside they can run backyard lot lines, though those wouldn’t be preferred locations, according to Riverside Village Attorney Michael Marrs. Wireless providers prefer locations where a truck can easily reach them, he said.

According to the state statute, a “small wireless facility” includes an antenna either located inside an enclosure of no more than 6 cubic feet or an exposed antenna that could fit within a 6-cubic-foot-enclosure. 

The facility also includes all of the equipment related to the antenna that, according to the statute, would be attached to the pole and would be no more than 25 cubic feet in volume. 

That calculation does not include other equipment, like meters, switches and “ground enclosures.” However, Marrs said, that not all small-cell facilities require ground-mounted enclosures.

Riverside already has one small-cell facility within its borders, though many people may not have noticed it before. It was installed within the last couple of years along the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad line. Verizon placed an antenna on the tornado siren pole on Pine Avenue east of Fire Station 2, as part of an effort to provide wireless service to Metra commuters.

The Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act gave municipalities 60 days to pass local laws governing application fees and regulate the locations and design standards for small cell installations, to the extent the act allows such regulation.

Exactly the impact, visually and otherwise, on suburban Chicago communities isn’t clear at this point. But the Center for Municipal Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in telecommunications issues such as small-cell technology, believes that without proper local protections, it could be significant.

“Currently the industry is acknowledging that for each carrier, they’ll need one small-cell or DAS [distributed antenna system] per 50 to 75 users,” said Rusty Monroe, co-founder in 1997 of the Center for Municipal Solutions, which has offices in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Albany, New York. 

The company has provided consulting services for about 1,000 communities in 39 states, Monroe said.

“In a typical suburban community, you’re probably looking at one of these for each carrier per block, and perhaps more, depending on population density,” Monroe said.

The reason isn’t coverage, Monroe said, but capacity for things like streaming video.

“People are being misled about the fact that it’s needed for 5G,” Monroe said. “They’re not being built today for 5G. That’s still being developed.”

Another reason Monroe said he believed carriers will need so many small-cell facilities in the future is that 5G technology operates at very high frequencies, which “don’t propagate very far as a usable signal strength.”

As far as visual impact, Monroe said that it will depend on the company and its choice equipment.

“They can be relatively innocuous,” said Monroe. “The problem is what the carriers present to the communities as to what they will look like, and what they build, are often worlds apart.”

Marrs said his initial discussion with one carrier suggested that the company might be able to get by with just one small-cell location in the village. 

While that was good news, said Marrs, “it’s just one provider, so it’s hard to tell.”

“Until it starts happening,” Marrs added, “it’s hard to tell how it’s going to play out.”

The ordinances passed in both Riverside, on July 19, and Brookfield, on July 23, set forth application fees — $1,000 when a new pole is involved, $650 for a single site with an existing pole and $350 per small wireless facility when multiple sites on existing poles are submitted in a single application.

The laws also call for carriers to pay $200 per year per facility on village-owned poles.

While that will provide some regular source of revenue, the $200 annual fee is far less than wireless carriers pay municipalities for antennae on existing towers and poles. For example, Marrs said, Riverside collects between $200 and $300 per month for the small-cell antenna on the pole near Fire Station 2.

But more importantly, the local ordinances call for carriers to abide by design standards for the facilities. While those standards haven’t been completely worked out, they will offer some protection to the villages, especially in Riverside, where the entire village is a National Historic Landmark District.

Marrs said that protections exist in the state statute for historic districts. That means carriers will be prohibited from using any of the village’s cast iron gas street lamp posts for the small-cell facilities, said Marrs.

As for new poles carriers want to build in public rights of way, the village will have less control. However, said Marrs, carriers have expressed a willingness to work with municipalities on choosing locations.

In Riverside’s downtown, said Marrs, it likely would be possible to find locations closer to the train line, behind businesses, places “less obvious and with designs that would not cause serious aesthetic heartburn.”

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