As the city moves to tighten rules that dictate where cell towers can be placed and how they should look, telecommunications industry officials are warning they could hurt efforts to meet the region’s demand for wireless connectivity.
Last month, City Council postponed action on revisions to Title 20, the part of the city code that governs public wireless service facilities. Proposed changes include limits on tall, ground-mounted cell towers, what the industry calls macro cell sites. They also include an updated guide on how the city prefers the towers to look and new limits on tower heights and setbacks in residential areas.
City staff was directed by Council at the end of October to come back with an updated policy plan at the January 2020 meeting. The proposed amendments first came to City Council in March 2017, and councilmembers have been postponing action on the policy since then.
Alex Hoffman, assistant director of capital planning for the city, said staff will now go back to review feedback and meet with industry officials and neighborhood associations to gather more input on the plan.
Hoffman said the code changes were introduced after City Council received complaints about the way the cell towers looked in some neighborhoods.
“The direction for us was to go and provide some recommendations to see how we could better regulate them from an aesthetics perspective,” Hoffman said.
The proposed Title 20 amendments only deal with large structures, not small ones like the micro cell towers needed to construct a high-speed 5G network.
Construction specifications on micro cell towers, which are used in 5G infrastructure, are governed at state and federal levels.
Andrew Dominguez, chief development officer at El Paso-based Vertical One, which installs and maintains cell towers for telecommunications companies, said he is concerned the new rules will go too far.
What started as guidelines on aesthetics, Dominguez said, has turned into limiting service providers from beefing up services in places with the most demand, like residential areas.
Among the biggest issues Vertical One has with the proposed changes are the reduced height limits in residential areas — from 75 feet to 35 feet — and the removal of a special permit for residential areas to place a large tower less than a half-mile away from the next one.
“The industry would like for us to still have the opportunity to apply for a special permit,” Dominguez said. “If the community within that area decides they don’t want another tower, that they’re OK with their service, let them decide, but still give the carrier the opportunity to do that.”
Hoffman said the main goal of Title 20 is to create a policy that would direct public wireless service facilities to blend in better with the surrounding environment and to encourage co-location of facilities.
“We’re trying to figure out how to incorporate flexibility into that so that service doesn’t become an issue,” Hoffman said.
While telecommunications companies push forward with efforts to expand 5G networks across the country, there are also groups pushing back against claims that the technology is necessary, citing safety concerns about the frequencies used by the technology.
The Americans for Responsible Technology, a national nonprofit, is asking lawmakers to slow the rollout of 5G, saying there are too many factors that have been untested before the technology is deployed in neighborhoods and across cities.
El Paso is still a long way from having fully 5G wireless infrastructure, and Dominguez said large cell sites are still necessary to provide better coverage across the city, especially in residential areas where people are living and connecting to their devices.
“Putting in both small cell and macro towers in a lot of the sprawling areas out in the Eastside and Westside, where El Paso’s really growing, those macro towers are going to be the solution for them,” Dominguez said.
The city has also created a policy guide for the aesthetic features of large cell towers. It includes guidelines on how to best camouflage ground-mounted towers, including solutions like placing facilities inside bell towers and church steeples.
Dominguez said Vertical One has been able to come up with creative solutions both in El Paso and in other Southwestern cities.
“In Phoenix, they do it in saguaro cacti because it works there. Everything we deploy in Ruidoso is a pine tree,” Dominguez said. “I told them if they like the Bhutanese style, or Spanish architecture, let’s go ahead and codify that into the charter so that way it removes the ambiguity and eliminates the room for bad actors to come in and say ‘we didn’t know anything.’”
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