As Montecito wrestles with the issue of pole-mounted wireless antennas and their placement within the community, a number of issues need to be considered.
First on my list is the fact that making a determination by the number of negative letters received about the project is not a valid way to assess the needs of the citizens. We all know that when any project is proposed, a group of activists will oppose it and make themselves heard while most citizens will not get involved.
When a new cell site was proposed at Elings Park to cover the Hope Ranch Annex and Braemar Ranch area, the network operator sent out fliers with postage-paid return cards addressed to the Planning Commission. The result was an overwhelming approval of the proposed site that has been up and running for five years now.
I do have to agree with one comment made at the meeting that had to do with a desire by the contactor to install a new pole in an area where the utilities are underground. This makes no sense to me. The residents paid to have the utilities buried, and I believe the contractor should have been aware of this and not proposed this site but looked for alternative options.
Another comment was made that the micro cell antennas, mounted on poles, will provide service for only one of the major network operators, leaving coverage gaps for the others. This is a true statement and one that, perhaps, needs some further clarification.
Wireless network operators have licenses on different portions of the radio spectrum. Further, some operators make use of one technology while others use another technology that is not compatible. As we move into the world of wireless broadband, this difference will cease to exist since a fourth-generation technology known as Long Term Evolution, or LTE, is fast becoming the worldwide standard. However, for now, each network operator continues to support second- and third-generation technologies while deploying LTE.
The operators’ spectrum licenses are spread out over the radio bands; some network operators have multiple licenses covering spectrum in different bands. This complicates the process of deploying antennas and equipment, and it makes it difficult or impossible for a single radio, mounted on a pole, to offer service for more than a single operator. However, the pole-mounted radios are connected via a fiber optic cable with many strands of fiber in it. This means that the primary contractor could contract with another provider or two and use the same fiber as transport for additional antennas mounted on the same poles or different poles.
As demand for wireless broadband services doubles and redoubles, and with radio spectrum being a finite resource, wireless network operators have to augment the larger cell sites with smaller sites to add coverage and capacity to their networks.
If you remember when the first iPhone hit the market on AT&T’s network, the sheer volume of data usage caused a great deal of congestion on the network. AT&T and the others have all had to add more capacity to their networks without having more radio spectrum available to them. The concept of cellular, now called wireless, systems is that you start with cell sites a few miles apart, then you add more cell sites to fill in coverage gaps to increase the network capacity. There really is no other solution available.
All of this comes down to the fact that Montecito, Santa Barbara and every other city in the county will have to deal with more and more requests for additional cell sites. Add to this the fact that for the first time, public safety first responders have been granted a license for their own broadband network and they, too, will need to build cell sites or co-locate with existing wireless networks.
As we become more mobile, we will have to accept more cell sites in our cities and towns, or we will have to accept network congestion and lack of wireless coverage.
Several communities have changed their zoning and permitting policies so that instead of having to deal with each new cell site application, the permitting can be streamlined if wireless network operators pre-plan their new sites and build sites that will be shared with other wireless network operators as well as the coming Public Safety Broadband Network. Wireless sites don’t have to look like wireless sites. In some cases, they can be built to resemble other structures or they can be hidden. When you are driving around, try to find the wireless cell site at the harbor, or when you drive down Highway 101 past State Street, look for the pine tree wireless site.
The bottom line is that communities across America will have to deal with more — not fewer — cell sites in the coming years. New technologies are on the horizon, and more spectrum will be made available, but because of where it is located along the radio frequency band, this “new” spectrum will require more cell sites to provide adequate coverage. All of this points to the fact that communities need to come up with a longer-range plan to address the issues they will face.
Today, there are more wireless devices in use in the United States than there are citizens, and this trend will continue as many of us use multiple devices for multiple purposes. Wireless cell sites have a finite capacity and coverage area due to laws of physics. These laws cannot be broken; therefore, if we want to enjoy our wireless freedom, we must accept new cell sites. Wireless, after all, is only the last mile, the last quarter-mile or even the last few hundred yards of what we call a wireless network.
— Andrew Seybold is a wireless communications consultant. The opinions expressed are his own.