Small Wireless Antennas are Causing A Stir in Neighborhoods Across Boston

By Beth Treffeisen

Popping up across the city, small antennas attached to streetlights, utility poles, traffic lights and on the sides of buildings are causing some concern among residents who don’t know where they are coming from.

In order to shed some light on this issue, Boston City Councilor Michael Flaherty has called for an expedited hearing to discuss the increasing amount of antenna devices that are technically referred to as small cell, small wireless and distributed antenna systems, being installed across the city with little to no warning.

“It is understandable and reasonable that, given that we live in a historic city which is going through an era of rapid growth and development, it is necessary that the landscape of Boston requires consistent infrastructure upgrades, including telecommunications-based infrastructure,” said Flaherty in a statement. “However, it is unacceptable that residents have not been made aware of the process.”

Flaherty said his office receives numerous phone calls from residents saying that another antenna has been placed on a light pole in front of their house or down the corner without any notice.

“None of this is being discussed publicly,” said Flaherty at the Boston City Council hearing on October 25. “Whose making these decisions and why? Can we give folks a little more awareness and give them say to suggest a street that might be a bit more appropriate?”

The City of Boston has license agreements with six wireless providers that manage more than 300 small cell sites to assist with wireless telecommunications. These providers are American Tower Corporation, Crown Castle, Extenet, Lightower, Mobilitie, and Verizon.

The respective contracts allow the providers to install the antenna devices on City properties – such as streetlights, utility poles, and traffic lights – along with non-City properties that are subject to approval by Boston’s Public Improvement Commission, over the course of ten years according to the Term of Agreement.

In addition, in historic neighborhoods the devices need to gain approval from the Boston Landmarks Commission that has a public hearing process.

A hearing date for the Boston City Council has yet to be set.

“There have definitely been some questions about them and how companies are just putting them up,” said Martyn Roetter the president of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay who has professional experience in telecommunications. “It’s not just a Boston problem but it’s happening in other cities as well.”

Roetter said that some people are concerned about the health effects the antennas can cause like cancer or brain tumors, but he said there are plenty of studies that show that small cells don’t pose any risk at all. In fact the power coming off the small cells is significantly lower than the wifi in people’s homes.

“Often times the same people complaining about those issues are also complaining about quality of their cell phone service,” said Roetter.

Flaherty noted that despite the technical name of the device, the antenna systems are by no means “small”. He said residents have brought to attention the displeasing aesthetic features of the antenna devices, which have appeared inches away from their windows, stating that they do not fit into the landscape of the neighborhood and are invasive.

The challenge with the appearance of the small cells is that each pole has a different wireless carrier. If each company needs to up their capacity of data service that could lead to even more small cell antennas devices being installed.

A distributed antennas system, such as the one located on the corner of Beacon St., and Arlington St. can support multiple carriers at once but due to competition wireless carriers prefer not to share. If the proliferation of poles is a problem, distributed antenna systems might be another solution.

“The price of keeping a quality neighborhood is continued vigilance,” said Roetter. “The wireless companies have not had much community engagement.”

Roetter said NABB has never been asked permission to install the equipment by a wireless company, let alone even been given an informational meeting that explained the need for them or gain community feedback for suggestions.

“That’s just foolish is my point of view,” said Roetter. “Right now people are seeing changes in their neighborhood and don’t have any say.”

Joseph Mullin a South End resident who works for Insite Wireless Group, which installs equipment that allows cell phones to work underground in subways, said that the small cells are supplemental to the antennas on rooftops.

He said that everyone is using a smart phone that uses up more data, causing wireless companies to come up with better solutions to provide the additional coverage needed.

The distance between traditional cell towers is quite large. One solution that wireless companies are using is reducing the size of the cells and using new frequencies, which tend to be higher and have shorter ranges, to create more capacity on the networks. The small cells help fill in the coverage gap to provide better service to customers.

“There is a strong demand on this,” said Mullin. “In my personal perspective cell phones don’t work in my house and I talk to other people in the South End and their phones don’t work in their house either.”

Mullin said that it is a capacity issue. As more people move to the South End there is more traffic vying for the signal causing it to become weaker.

“My feeling is that in order to have cell phone service in my house, I welcome small cells – as long as they are done right,” said Mullin.

As of right now, Mullin said he’s seen the small cells on Tremont St., in the South End but not yet on Washington St. He suspects it won’t be long until that street receives them too.

The issue of lack of communication between the wireless companies and the community is not just a local issue.

In Massachusetts the MBTA signed a contract with InMotion Wireless in an effort to increase the wifi connection on commuter rails, which is notoriously known for being terrible. But, InMotion took the contract and installed wireless monopoles along the commuter rail route with no public approval, outraging communities.

Mullin said this is just part of an overarching trend across the nation.

On the national level, the wireless companies are currently lobbying for less regulation to make it easier to bypass local regulations to install even more poles with antennas in any municipal property, not just along streets.

A federal bill that was sent to the Senate in late October would pre-empt local regulation of poles 50 feet high or 10 feet higher than any existing structure in the public right away. A regular streetlight is 20 to 25 feet.

“If this is passed there could be 100-foot poles in the Boston Common and no one could prevent it from happening,” said Mullin.

Currently there are only 16 states with bills to preempt local control on this matter but Massachusetts is not one of them.

“I would not like to see a 100-foot pole put up next to my house in a little park near my home,” said Mullin. “It’s not likely it’s ever going to happen but it could. What if Landmarks was told they had no say?”

He continued, “If the federal and state governments say ‘no we can’t give them any requirements,’ that to me can be a very bad thing in my opinion.”

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