Santa Rosa continues 'pause' on Verizon small-cell project

Santa Rosa is still unwilling to let Verizon Wireless install antennas and wireless equipment on city light poles, putting the carrier’s plans to boost network coverage in the city on hold indefinitely.

The City Council on Tuesday reaffirmed the “pause” it placed on the project in March, saying the way the company had managed the rollout of “small cell” wireless gear on wooden utility poles in the city was a cause for concern.

Mayor Chris Coursey said the company “did a really lousy job of outreach” to neighborhoods where gear has been installed on Pacific Gas & Electric poles, making him hesitant to partner with the company on the portion of the project involving city-owned poles.

“They ran, in my estimation, roughshod over some of these neighborhoods, in putting these things in, because they could,” Coursey said.

The council has found itself caught in the middle of a wider battle raging between wireless carriers seeking to deliver better wireless telephone and data services to the city and residents who worry about the aesthetic and possible health impacts of such equipment so close to their homes.

Councilman Jack Tibbetts called the evidence for health risks from the technology “inconclusive,” but said he represented residents of Santa Rosa, not Verizon, and needed to respect the fears of his constituents.

“I don’t want a resident to go to bed at night and put their head on a pillow worried about what’s going on outside their window,” Tibbetts said.

A half-dozen Verizon officials attended the Tuesday council meeting, an indication of how seriously the company takes the controversy.

Spokeswoman Heidi Flato said the carrier was disappointed with the outcome, but will “continue working closely with council members and city staff to overcome obstacles to implementing this much-needed wireless infrastructure.”

Danna Diamond, a company real estate specialist, told the council that the nation’s wireless telephone infrastructure is the “backbone of our society now,” allowing people to stay connected to their children and work from home. She said ?52 percent of homes now have no landlines, 76 percent of 911 calls are now made from a cellphone, and 64 percent of those are made from inside a building.

As cellphone usage has exploded, carriers have needed to “densify their networks” by adding new transmission equipment closer to the users, and “small cell” technology, which operates at higher frequencies and is better able to deliver high-speed data.

“The average household has 13 connected devices,” Diamond told the council.

Verizon says its service in the city is spotty, especially inside homes in residential areas, and the new small cells will work in conjunction with existing larger “macro” towers throughout the city to improve coverage and capacity.

Much of the city has cell coverage, but with people using smartphones, the data demands on the network have increased, resulting in connection delays, explained Radha Sharma, senior real estate manager for Verizon.

It’s a case the company has been making to communities across the county. Last year, the company reportedly spent more than $10 billion on such installations.

“Small cells are needed to meet exploding consumer demand for data, drive innovation, create new jobs and fuel new services and capabilities such as smart communities, connected cars, smart farming and the Internet of Things,” Verizon explained in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission.

The company had hoped to install about 70 small cells in Santa Rosa - 40 on wooden PG&E poles, over which the city has little say, and 30 on city street light poles, over which the city has total control.

The company moved forward with installing equipment on PG&E poles with little notice to residents, and the pushback was fierce from both local residents and passionate anti-wireless activists.

Judith Monroy, a former resident of Link Lane, accused Verizon of “dishonestly and duplicity” when it quickly installed over the holidays a series of boxes and exposed wires on the PG&E pole outside her home, as well as a battery pack in a large metal cabinet.

“That was 20 feet from where I sit and read in my living room, maybe less,” she told the council.

Following publicity of such complaints, Verizon removed the battery cabinet and painted the gear brown to blend in better with the wooden pole.

Monroy said she nevertheless had difficulty selling the home earlier this year.

Bill Coset, a resident of the Neotomas Avenue area in Bennett Valley, advocated that the city take a cautious approach, allowing the company to install a few of its small cells, then hiring a third-party to monitor them before allowing more.

“It just seems like we are giving Verizon a super-saturated coverage instead of adequate coverage,” Coset said.

Such concerns clearly influenced the council, which didn’t formally vote on the issue but made it clear it wanted to extend the pause. Only Councilman John Sawyer expressed concern about the move.

Sawyer said he worried less about the health impacts of wireless technology and more about allowing the city’s wireless infrastructure to stagnate, harming the city’s competitiveness.

“What concerns me right now is the technological disadvantage that we might be placing ourselves in by not moving forward,” Sawyer said.

At last count, the city had approved 39 of 41 applications Verizon had filed for small cell installations on PG&E poles. City officials said they had little leeway in approving such requests, and are limited by state public utilities law to regulating installation issues, such as construction safety and traffic control.

Plans by Verizon for small cell installations on 30 streetlights remain on hold, as do plans by Mobilitie for small cells on 20 streetlights. Mobilitie hopes to build a network to lease to a carrier.

AT&T has not applied to the city yet, but Eric McHenry, the city’s director of information technology, said he knows the company is active in the space, citing its recent deal to pay San Jose $5 million over ?15 years to install small cells on 170 light poles.

Santa Rosa, by contrast, estimates that 200 small cells on city poles would generate fees of $70,000 per year, or about $1 million over 15 years.

Council members urged city staff to explore ways to regulate small cells, which are considered 4G technology, especially given that 5G gear is considered to be right around the corner.

Julie Combs noted that she is 5 feet, 3 inches tall, and can reach up and touch the gear installed recently on a PG&E pole, gear she said she hopes the city can find a way to regulate, despite legal hurdles.

“It is remarkably ugly,” she said.

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