Slow speeds, dropped cellphone calls and spotty reception on wireless networks in the Santa Rosa area have over the years frustrated residents and hurt business recruitment while landing the city on a list of 125 American metropolitan areas with the worst urban coverage.
Now, in a bid to boost 4G connectivity, Verizon Wireless and other service providers have been given approval to fit utility and streetlight poles in the city of Santa Rosa with small antennas.
“We were ranked fourth worst in the country out of 125 cities just a few years ago,” said Eric McHenry, head of Santa Rosa’s Information Technology Department, referring to a 2016 study on cellphone network speed and reliability by the analytic firm RootMetrics.
Verizon reached out to the city after the study’s publication, and on Tuesday, Christal Canada, a Verizon representative, told the City Council that the service provider wanted to turn those numbers around by installing 75 “small cell” units on city-owned light poles and other public infrastructure in business districts and neighborhoods over the next three years. The antennas are about 5 feet tall and are mounted atop the poles.
Verizon began rolling out the small cells nationwide three years ago. Before the new technology could be deployed in Santa Rosa, the City Council had to first amend city code.
Policy adopted by the city in 2000 and amended in 2015 restricted cellular installations to city rights of way.
The predominant large cell towers within city limits have long been considered an eyesore by some. But wireless networks are evolving, with carriers now looking at smaller installations to fill in their urban networks.
“Technology has changed substantially,” McHenry said. “Our policy focused on larger, more traditional cellular telecommunications infrastructure.”
The smaller antenna network is intended to boost voice and data capacity within existing wireless networks.
The greater capacity is important, as data demand has increased by more than 50 percent every year since 2014, Canada said.
The growth in demand is driven by video streaming, including YouTube, Netflix and Hulu, and the proliferation of devices connected to networks.
Verizon Wireless isn’t the only company planning to deploy small cell technology to Santa Rosa. Mobilitie, a company that sets up small cell antennas and leases them to other carriers, also submitted an application to install small cylindrical nodes on the top of light poles throughout the city, McHenry said.
City staff have also reached out to AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, but no applications have been submitted.
Verizon’s poor data performance was a major factor in the Santa Rosa area being at the bottom — number 122 — in the RootMetrics survey, McHenry said, leading the company to reach out to the city.
At Tuesday’s council meeting, City Manager Sean McGlynn said poor service in the area created difficulties recruiting new business to the city.
“It has been an issue for us in conversation with entrepreneurs,” McGlynn said. “The RootMetric study was pointed to on more than one occasion.”
The council voted 7-0 in favor of the change to the wireless infrastructure policy.
You can reach Staff Writer Nick Rahaim at 707-521-5203.