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Tampa sets 120-day moratorium on permits for 5G wireless antennas on city rights of way

Tampa officials expect the spread of 5G wireless technology to result in a a flood of applications to put new small cell antennas and other equipment on poles like this one, many of them in the city's right of way. This pole is in Orlando, and the equipment shown here did not meet the city of Orlando's code for small cell antennaes at the time it was installed. It later was changed to meet the code.
Tampa officials expect the spread of 5G wireless technology to result in a a flood of applications to put new small cell antennas and other equipment on poles like this one, many of them in the city's right of way. This pole is in Orlando, and the equipment shown here did not meet the city of Orlando's code for small cell antennaes at the time it was installed. It later was changed to meet the code.
Published Jul. 17, 2017

TAMPA — With wireless companies saying time is of the essence, the City Council voted Thursday to enact a 120-day moratorium on accepting new applications to put 5G wireless antennas on city rights of way.

The moratorium affects distributed antenna systems and micro antennas that, while smaller than previous generations of technology, can still be about as big as a small refrigerator.

The council had looked at a 180-day moratorium. It shortened that to 120 days after lobbyists said the city needs better wireless service when it welcomes the 2018 National Hockey League All-Star Game on Jan. 28 — though no one mentioned that Tampa hosted this year's College Football Playoff National Championship with no reported deficiencies in wireless coverage.

"There's not a luxury of time, unfortunately," said Todd Josko, a Tampa lobbyist for the wireless infrastructure company Crown Castle. "If we're going to provide the telecommunications services that we need for the All-Star weekend, something has to be done."

From start to finish, it takes about six months to build and put up the wireless equipment in question, said Christopher Parra, vice president of small cell networks for Uniti Fiber in St. Petersburg.

Two residents, however, urged the city to take its time. To create effective 5G wireless networks, the new smaller antennas need to be installed in many more locations, and they said the city should not be cluttered with indiscriminately placed new antennas.

"I like my cell phone; I'd like it to be a little faster," Warren Dixon of New Tampa said, "but my concern is, we're about to pay a too heavy a price for it in terms of aesthetics."

The distributed antenna systems that support faster 5G wireless networks don't rely on the big, more isolated cellular towers many people are used to seeing. Rather, he said, "they depend on many, many smaller towers" on public rights of way or easements between private properties.

Skeptics also reminded the council of the controversy that erupted in 2003 when Tampa Electric surprised the Egypt Lake neighborhood with new poles that residents hated so much that two different groups filed lawsuits in an unsuccessful effort to get them removed.

"I can see these going everywhere, just everywhere," Seminole Heights activist Susan Long told the council. "We do need to look at it more carefully."

This spring, the Legislature passed a bill that city and county officials opposed out of a concern that it would take away much of their authority to regulate where new 5G antennas could go or how the installations could look. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman urged Gov. Rick Scott, unsuccessfully, not to sign the bill. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn called the pre-emption of local authority a power grab.

The final version of the bill gives local governments more leeway than earlier versions, Tampa senior assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert said. Still, she said, while the city welcomes the arrival of faster 5G wireless service, the new law is complex. It will take time to make sure Tampa's permitting process, criteria for approval and design standards comply with what Tallahassee has allowed.

"We want to make sure we do it right," she said.

At Kert's suggestion, the council asked for a report in 90 days. If possible, city attorneys will try to prepare updates sooner than the full 120 days.

"The city is not taking this as an opportunity to delay," she said. "The city wants to be compliant with the state statute (and) to take what opportunities that they have presented to us to make sure that we safeguard our right of ways to the extent that we can. We don't get the ability to do spacing requirements. A lot has been taken away from us, and we want to suss out what abilities we still have."

The demand for faster 5G wireless service creates a dilemma for regulators and local officials — the equipment tends to be smaller, but it has to be installed in many more locations to create a good network. As a result, the number of permit applications for 5G installations is rising fast and expected to accelerate.

"There's a lot of new poles coming in," Kert said.

And that requires a balanced approach to regulation, council member Harry Cohen said.

"On the one hand, we have, I think, real bona fide business needs to get this moving as quickly as possible," he said. "On the other I absolutely agree that we've got to protect the aesthetics of the city. None of us, I think, wants to see these on scenic corridors and in places where they're going to create a lot of visual pollution."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times