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To handle data usage boom, cell signals may come from Fargo stoplights

FARGO -- Traffic lights and streetlights in some parts of town may soon sprout mysterious looking cylinders and cabinets, bringing with them better reception and faster streaming for cellphone users.

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FARGO - Traffic lights and streetlights in some parts of town may soon sprout mysterious looking cylinders and cabinets, bringing with them better reception and faster streaming for cellphone users.

With their customers' insatiable appetite for data growing with each year, cellphone carriers are finding they must add new antennas in new places to keep up.

This past summer, a local firm working with Verizon Wireless submitted a request to the city for 16 antennas clustered in about two and a half square miles of downtown. Other maps show seven antennas west of West Acres mall and nine on the North Dakota State University campus.

It's no longer enough to have just a loose network of big tower-mounted antennas serving big geographic areas, according to industry publications. What's needed are denser networks of small antennas in areas of high demand.

"Demand for wireless data services has nearly doubled over the last year," Meagan Dorsch, Verizon's North Dakota spokeswoman, said in an email. "Small cells are part of Verizon's strategy to stay ahead of the booming demand for wireless data."

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"So when you're in an area - like if you're downtown for an event - everyone's trying to use data, it helps boost the ability for you to use data," Brenda Derrig, an engineer for the city of Fargo in charge of engineering services, recently told the city's Planning Commission.

Dorsch said Verizon has been adding small cells around the country since late 2013. This trend is just arriving now in Fargo and it's prompting a scramble to change laws to accommodate the industry and its customers in a controlled way.

The trend is causing Moorhead and West Fargo to review their regulations as well, according to officials from both cities.

Data demand

According to CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group, the number of minutes of voice calls U.S. cellphone users made each month grew 10 percent between December 2013 and December 2015 but the amount of data used grew 199 percent.

That's not surprising with the increasing popularity of streaming music services and videos. According to Verizon's data-use calculator, an hour of streaming music every day uses 1.8 gigabytes per month and an hour of streaming video uses 10.3 gigabytes per month. The company has estimated an hour of voice calls over the Internet a day would use less than a gigabyte per month.

Traditionally, cellphone carriers divided their coverage area into cells, each as many as 10 miles in diameter and served by a single powerful antenna mounted on a high tower. The challenge had been to cover as large a geographical area as possible. Today, as cellphone users consume more data, carriers find they have to add more capacity in areas they already cover.

And they're finding macrocells aren't always the answer, according to Unison Site Management, a firm that leases antenna sites. Part of the reason is macrocells cost a lot of money and those towers they're on are considered unsightly, the firm said. In fact, many communities require these towers be disguised as trees or church steeples to blend in with their surroundings, adding to their cost.

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Enter the "small cells" or "microcells," smaller antennas that blend in better and are cheaper to boot. Three microcells, each serving a cell one mile in diameter can serve the same area as a macrocell but at less cost, according to Unison.

Dorsch said Verizon uses microcells to supplement macrocells. "Small cell networks add capacity in small specific areas to improve in-building coverage, voice quality, reliability, and data speeds."

Besides Verizon, the city has also been approached by a firm representing another carrier with similar plans - city documents show the carrier is AT&T - as well as by three Internet providers asking about installing Wi-Fi transmitters, according to Derrig.

In Moorhead, City Planner Kristie Leshovsky said she's received questions from two carriers, one of which was looking at an area near the high school.

In West Fargo, city spokeswoman Melissa Richard said officials received questions from one carrier a year ago but have not heard more since.

Visual impact

The city of Fargo is involved partly because it's zoning laws govern how close antennas can be to each other - this is to reduce the visual impact - and partly because each of the two carriers initially wanted to mount microcells on their own utility poles in the city's right-of-way, such as streets and sidewalks.

Derrig said having so many new utility poles erected could also have a strong visual impact on the streetscape; one carrier wanted to use 120-foot wooden poles.

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It would only get worse, she said, if all carriers seek to build their own microcell network and if these networks were to expand from dense commercial districts, such as downtown, to residential neighborhoods.

"Those are the areas we're quite concerned with. How do we keep control in the residential and historic districts if they end up going there someday?" Derrig said.

Another problem, she said, is if the utility poles were only used for antennas they would fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission, meaning the city would lose control of the poles in its own right of way.

Both Moorhead and West Fargo are observing what's happening in Fargo but have not proposed changes to their laws yet.

Stealth antennas

After Verizon and the other carrier applied for permits to build utility poles this summer, Derrig said her department denied access to buy time to come up with a better way. She said the better way turns out to be mounting antennas and their associated equipment on traffic lights and street lights. Because the purpose of the traffic lights and street lights isn't primarily related to communication, the city would still have control, she said.

Carriers have also asked permission to install antennas on private property, such as buildings, she said, though they would still have to follow zoning laws.

City commissioners recently gave initial approval to ordinances spelling out how the city would lease its streetlights, traffic lights and other utility poles to carriers. One of the conditions is any wireless equipment would have to blend in, for example, being painted the same color as the poles, and minimize impact on nearby buildings.

Carriers also can petition the city to add new utility poles but those poles would need to provide some other city service other than for mounting antennas to avoid FCC jurisdiction. The city initially wanted to prohibit carriers from putting in new utility poles in the city of right of way but carriers and their attorneys complained this would violate federal law.

City staff still has to come up with a fee structure.

This wouldn't be the first time the city allowed private companies to piggyback on its infrastructure for a fee. Some city water towers now host macrocells and other antennas. Conduits built under newer downtown streets are leased out for fiber optic cables and other wiring.

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
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