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'Street furniture' cell towers prompt questions for Verizon

The battle over cell towers is moving closer to your front door.

Growing demand for cellular data by smartphones, tablets and other devices has led wireless carriers across the country to deploy a new kind of wireless transmitter called "small cells" to provide better coverage in densely populated areas.

About 4 feet tall and weighing about 400 pounds, small cells function like the more familiar tall "macro cell" towers, but are lower powered and can be affixed atop utility poles. By comparison, cell towers can rise to 90 feet tall or higher. Wireless providers say small cells are so unobtrusive they have a name for them – "street furniture."

Verizon Wireless has already installed an undisclosed number of the small cells in Buffalo and a handful in Cheektowaga.

Now it wants to install 12 small cells in a northwest Amherst residential neighborhood near the University at Buffalo – in front of homes and a school in some cases – but residents and town officials are raising concerns about safety and potential health impacts related to the devices.

"It's very new," said Joanne A. Schultz, Amherst senior deputy town attorney. "These are issues all municipalities are going to be challenged with the more and more we become reliant on broadband."

A group of Amherst residents concerned about Verizon Wireless's plans to erect small cell transmitters on utility poles in residential areas and near Willow Ridge Elementary stand in front of the school on Thursday , April 20, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Concerns in Amherst 

The mobile data traffic used by each smartphone is expected to increase from an average of 5.1 gigabytes per month in 2016 to 25 gigabytes by 2022, according to Ericsson, a telecommunications research company.

Existing cell towers just can't handle that explosive demand, especially in dense areas, said Zhi Sun, an assistant professor in the department of electrical engineering at the University at Buffalo.

"It's like if many people want to talk in the same room," he said. "If everyone talks, no one can hear each other because of the interference."

Small cells solve that problem by dividing the larger room into smaller rooms thereby adding bandwidth capacity for customers, he said.

The Willow Ridge neighborhood of Amherst just west of UB is the kind of area that is seeing deployment of small cells. It's densely populated with student housing and the busy Niagara Falls Boulevard commercial corridor. Verizon has proposed installing small cells on existing or new utility poles in front of:

  • 2676 Sweet Home Road
  • 2446 Sweet Home Road
  • 3030 Sweet Home Road
  • 1901 Sweet Home Road
  • Corner of Sweet Home Road and 53 American Campus Drive
  • 11 Beacon Park
  • 442 South Ellicott Creek Road
  • 401 Creekside Drive
  • 270 Willow Ridge Drive
  • 375 Willow Green Drive
  • 409 Willow Ridge Drive
  • 156 Grandview Drive

Those applications are expected to be considered next month by the town Zoning Board of Appeals. But Erich Krueger, president of the Willow Ridge Civic Association, said he has many unanswered questions for Verizon, including concerns about the additional weight of 400 pounds on utility poles rated to withstand 40 mph winds.

"This being Buffalo, 40 mph winds can be something we normally have," he said. "There's a concern of power outages."

Residents are also worried that placement of small cells in the public right-of-way in front of homes could negatively affect property values, and that the stations emit an unsafe level of radiation.

"There's just a lot of questions and we haven't gotten answers," Krueger said.

In Cheektowaga, the town depends on radio frequency analysis from engineers to study the electromagnetic radiation from small cells, said Town Planner Daniel J. Ulatowski. The health risk is "minimal" and diminishes at ground level, he said.

Sun, the UB professor, agreed.

"If Verizon wanted to use one of those things in my neighborhood I would not be against it because definitely you will receive much better service while the problem to human bodies is minimal," he said.

Alissa Shields, an Amherst environmental conservationist, however, is not convinced. "The science is not in yet," she said.

The effects of constant exposure from small cells over a period of several years has not been studied, she said, noting the small cells are at a home's second-floor height.

"You can't escape them," she said. "You can't turn them off. You'd have to study these residents for 10 to 15 years."

The coming trend

Small cells resembling silver cylinders are "nodes" connected to Verizon's fiber optic network and unobtrusive, said David Weissmann, the local public relations manager for Verizon.

"They really, generally don't get noticed," he said. "We like to call them 'street furniture.' They just sit there and don't do anything as far as the public knows, but they're allowing customers to communicate."

Verizon has been deploying small cells nationwide since 2013, he said.

"They've really picked up steam," he said. "It's really a big focus of what we're doing now."

Between 100,000 and 150,000 small cells could be installed nationwide by the end of 2018, according to an estimate by S&P Global Market Intelligence. That total could reach 455,000 by 2020 and nearly 800,000 by 2026.

As for Krueger's concern about whether utility poles can handle the added weight, Weissmann said Verizon follows all state local and federal guidelines and with thousands of small cells already deployed, "It has not been a problem."

Small cells will also be useful for the rollout of the next telecommunication standard, 5G. Verizon has begun testing 5G in 11 cities across the U.S., Weissmann said.

"Small cells actually are going to help us move towards 5G," he said. "The frequency that 5G operates on requires more density of antennas and small cells gives us that density."

A moratorium in Tonawanda

Shields says towns should put the brakes on new wireless, including small cells.

"This is a brand new technology and is being deployed aggressively in residential neighborhoods across from schools, right next to homes," she said, noting a small cell is planned across the street from Willow Ridge Elementary School.

Shields, who is helping the Willow Ridge group and leading a fight against a 90-foot cell tower near Sheridan Drive and Millersport Highway, started an online petition to "support sensible wireless infrastructure in Amherst."

The Town of Tonawanda earlier this month instituted a moratorium on communication towers, monopoles and antennas. Krueger and Shields would like to see Amherst do the same.

"If we're going to do this let's make sure we do it right," Krueger said.

But municipalities have little recourse to block small cells, or any proposed wireless infrastructure. The 1996 Federal Communications Act created a federal mandate to make deployment of such facilities quicker and easier. The act requires a decision on an application within 150 days or the wireless carrier can take a municipality to court for relief,  said Schultz, the Amherst deputy attorney.

"There's only so much maneuvering you can do as a municipality to say no," she said. "If they can show a demand and a lack of coverage in a certain area, you really can't say no."

The Town of Clarkston, near New York City, tried to modify its codes to give a preference for small cells over larger cell towers but it was challenged in federal court and struck down.

Schultz said she's organizing a townwide meeting to ask for input from all stakeholders, including residents and wireless providers.

"We're getting more and more applications," she said. "It's something I'm trying to work on."

Embraced in Cheektowaga

Small cells have recently been introduced to the Town of Cheektowaga where three sites have been approved by the Town Board and up to 75 new applications are expected soon.

"This isn't going away," said Ulatowski. "It's something we have to accept."

He is proposing allowing Verizon to place small cells on town-owned structures and using the revenue to maintain 50 aging traffic signals the town is responsible for.

The traffic signals currently run on timers. But if they were connected to Verizon's fiber optic network, the town could partner with Niagara International Transportation Technology Coalition to manually control signals and improve traffic flow.

"My feeling is the town should try to embrace it," he said. "It's exactly what we want. We don't want to see big, ugly cell towers, but we can also use it as a means to fund necessary infrastructure."

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