Cellphone, laptop and tablet users in Buffalo won't have to worry about traffic jams on the information superhighway if new equipment is installed that will enable telephone and other poles throughout the city to act as cell towers.
But first, a dispute over the fee the city would charge to use its poles may have to be worked out.
The "small cell" attachment system uses scores of miniaturized devices to take the place of huge cell towers, and city officials say the project will improve cellphone and computer service, providing faster speeds as well as expanded access.
“The use of cellphones is growing,” said Michael J. Finn, an engineer with the city. “This is the direction the market seems to be going.”
Cellphone providers requested access to the poles and will pay the city $2,000 annually per pole, with an annual 3 percent increase beginning July 1, 2018, under a plan the Common Council unanimously approved this week with the understanding that the cost will not be passed along to cell users.
However, Verizon and AT&T want Mayor Byron W. Brown to veto the measure. Verizon said the $2,000 fee is too high and will “likely prevent Verizon Wireless from effectively deploying wireless infrastructure in Buffalo,” according to a letter from David Lamendola, Verizon’s director of State Government Affairs for New York and Connecticut.
“We note that many communities, in order to promote the deployment of wireless networks, do not charge for the use of municipal poles,” the letter reads.
But at the Council’s Legislation Committee meeting last week, Council President Darius G. Pridgen was not sympathetic to that argument when Verizon representatives brought it up. Pridgen pointed out that Verizon made a third-quarter profit of $3.7 billion in 2014.
“And it makes its money off of the people, basically, who are subscribers,” he said. “The Council is going to consider helping Verizon to make more money, so the question of $2,000 on a pole, for somebody who made $3.7 billion,” is not an issue for him.
“I am in no way concerned about $2,000 per pole. There is no sympathetic ear at this desk for $2,000 per pole,” he said.
In its letter to Brown, Verizon also objected to the ordinance’s prohibition on placing new poles in the city’s right-of-way, which Verizon says will impair the company’s “ability to serve certain areas that lack existing poles/infrastructures sufficient to accommodate small cell infrastructure.”
City officials pointed out there are 33,000 poles already in the public right-of-way in the City of Buffalo.
In a separate letter to the mayor asking him to veto the legislation, AT&T Vice President Amy Kramer echoed some of Verizon's objections, saying the fee is unreasonably high compared to other similarly sized municipalities — "over 10 times the fees being charged in other places." She said the legislation "discourages and stifles small cell investment in the city because the fee structure is economically unsustainable and the restrictions on new poles would hinder deployment designs."
Specifically regarding the fees the city is charging, Kramer added, "They are inconsistent with federal law and policy, and are the sort of burden that the FCC has expressed interest in reviewing to ensure local governments do not slow deployment with unnecessary demands."
Asked if the mayor will veto the item, a spokesman said only that Brown will review the matter before deciding. The Council's unanimous vote means the mayor would have to persuade some Council members to change their votes if any veto were to stand.
Verizon says the new technology is necessary to keep up with "skyrocketing data usage," which doubled between 2015 and 2016 and is expected to grow another sevenfold by 2019. The increased capacity from the multiple small cells will ensure that service isn't slowed despite the rising demand, the company said.
The ordinance approved by the Council would limit the small cell attachments to poles over 20 feet high, and the devices could be no more than 3 feet high or wide, excluding hardware, wiring and electric meter. In addition, the equipment may not extend more than three feet above the height of the pole.
The equipment must be coated in gray, black, white or other color to match the pole, and must not interfere with the function of the pole, including street lighting, roadway signage, vertical banners, police cameras and traffic signal communications.
The plan also includes a public engagement process, something the Council insisted on.
“What we were concerned about is that when the idea was brought to us about the cellphone attachments, that there was no public input. You could just wake up one day and the whole neighborhood has them,” Pridgen said. “So now wherever there’s going to be an attachment proposed for a pole, there will be a notice put on the pole of when the community meeting will be. People can be engaged that way. They can ask for a public hearing. They then can get in touch with their Council member or public works.”
There will also be postcard notification for residents and businesses located immediately near the proposed pole.
“That way the public is well-informed of what is being proposed in their neighborhood and they just don’t wake up to that,” Pridgen said.