New wireless facilities are expected to reshape the town's technology infrastructure

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Image via Verizon

North Salem residents and town officials are weighing the pros and cons of a new cell tower at the site of the Hammond Museum, but a new crop of “mini cell towers” are expected to have a much larger and more ubiquitous impact on the town’s technology infrastructure in the not-so-distant future. Distributed antenna systems (DAS) are likely to begin appearing throughout our area as service providers race to keep up with increased consumer demand for high-speed wireless service.

“Take my word for it, they are coming to North Salem and virtually every municipality nationwide,” said Daniel Cohen, attorney for the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Cohen Law Group, which specializes in wireless facilities regulation. The town of North Salem has contracted with Cohen’s firm to consult on updating its legislation for wireless facilities applications.

Unlike traditional cell towers, which are typically situated on private land, mini cell towers are most often installed in public rights-of-way, such as walkways or on electrical transmission lines. The towers boost broadband capacity (not coverage), allowing for rapid download speeds and improved network capacity for things like smartphones, digital tablets and—eventually—autonomous vehicles. The towers, which often attach to existing utility poles, can be installed by both wireless carriers and wireless contractors.

According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, an estimated 150,000 DAS facilities were constructed in the United States by the end of 2018. That number is expected to reach 800,000 by the end of 2026.

Federal legislation limits municipalities’ legal authority over wireless facilities and in fact states that DAS cannot be outright prohibited. Towns must respond to applications for the establishment of wireless facilities within a "reasonable period of time." The federal guidelines were designed to meet the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) objective of deploying broadband service across the country as quickly as possible. Additionally, while municipalities can require wireless providers to demonstrate that their facilities are within radio frequency standards set forth by the FCC, they cannot enact their own standards.

The coverage area for mini cell towers is dramatically smaller than traditional towers. According to Cohen, at best a small cell tower can cover an area of up to 1,000 feet. “What we have seen is usually these come in batches; they can come in batches of 5, 10, 15 or 20 but they are definitely not just one.” 

The North Salem Town Planning Board, led by Chairwoman Cynthia Curtis, will begin working with Cohen and his firm to draft legislation that outlines separate and distinct requirements for each type of wireless facility, including those on both private and public sites.

“I think we need to get our heads wrapped around the potential for some of these,” said Curtis.

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