Small cells are a new, innovative way to deliver high quality wireless service and are the first sign of where wireless technology is going: smaller antennas that are closer to the user. They are also used to extend internet access to previously unserved or underserved areas. Deploying small cells is an attractive option for urban and rural areas, as they are often significantly less expensive and less disruptive to install than larger macro cell sites. Small cells will likely be the best option for continuing to improve wireless access in urban areas without installing the larger antennas that are often opposed by local residents, but that doesn’t mean local governments should be prohibited from safeguarding installation. Ensuring local control over the public right of way is particularly important for Next Century Cities’ members, as the deployment of small cells is expected to increase in the coming years.

“Small cells” is an umbrella term used to describe picocells, femtocells, microcells, and other radio wave technology. Small cell networks are made up of a system of units that are often attached to fiber-optics at key access points, and use licensed and unlicensed spectrum to provide wireless service. They are often used by service providers to fill in capacity and coverage gaps in a network, or to provide increased bandwidth to specific blocks or neighborhoods.

Small cell units are generally connected to a fiber optic network. Once connected, a single unit can provide service for upwards of 30 access points in high-density areas, and can extend service to access points anywhere from 10 meters to over a kilometer away. Small cell units are comparable to a suitcase in size, and are usually attached to structures in the public right of way, such as utility poles, traffic lights, and street lights. However, they are still large enough to create the potential for safety and aesthetic concerns.

Some cities, like Boston, MA and Lincoln, NE, have successfully negotiated with service providers to facilitate the installation of small cells through mutually beneficial agreements. Although Boston’s municipal government does not own the utility poles, it does have other structures, such as street lights, to which small cells can be attached. City leaders used this to their advantage, and entered into a deployment agreement with Verizon whereby the city makes its property easily accessible to Verizon in exchange for an increased city role in the types of poles and equipment Verizon uses. For example, once Boston officials agree to Verizon’s design for a specific type of poll, Verizon can submit a list of locations to install it instead of having to go through block-by-block reviews and public hearings for every installation. The city benefits from the ability to review locations in historic districts more closely, Verizon benefits from the the ability to more easily deploy attachments, and citizens benefit by receiving improved services more quickly.

Lincoln, which owns all the streetlights and a fiber conduit system throughout the city, also entered into a mutually agreeable contract with Verizon. In exchange for a speedy and simplified deployment process, Verizon will replace the street light poles with new poles and assume future maintenance of those poles. Verizon will extend fiber from the city’s conduit system to the poles for the city’s use, and reserve space on the poles where Lincoln can attach equipment such as cameras, public Wi-Fi antennas, or smart traffic sensors. Both Boston and Lincoln will continue to benefit from these relationships through the pole rental fees Verizon will continue to pay them, and from the continued improvements to mobile wireless coverage.

Boston and Lincoln are just two examples of the many ways cities can partner with private service providers to ensure that small cells are being deployed in ways that benefit both the community and the provider. Crucially, the cities designed these arrangements so that other small cell providers could get similar terms for deployment – meaning consumers stand to benefit from enhanced competition as well. For more information on small cells and city negotiations, please use the following resources:

Boston, MA Small Cell Agreements

Community Broadband Networks’ “Small Cells Yield Big Results In Lincoln”

CTC Insights: How Localities Can Improve Wireless Service for the Public While Addressing Citizen Concerns

Joint Venture’s “Bridging the Gap 21st Century Wireless Telecommunications Handbook

Lincoln, NE Small Cell Agreement

Next Century Cities’ Webinar– Small Cells: What You Need to Know