Both sides now: Cities may see zoning in a new way
by Martha DeGrasse 6/05/21
In addition to keeping a number of talented lawyers employed, the back and forth between city governments and wireless infrastructure companies adds time and cost to deployments, and also helps communities maintain their chosen aesthetics, zoning and right-of-way uses.
Many wireless infrastructure firms noted changes to this dynamic during the COVID-19 pandemic. City offices that had never taken the time to develop online permitting processes suddenly had to do so. Now those are in place and should remain. The pandemic also cleared the streets for a period of time, allowing some projects that were already permitted to proceed quickly once it seemed safe to dispatch crews.
There’s another important change to the zoning and permitting process that may result from the pandemic. Months of online school and remote work showed communities how critical broadband connectivity is, and some city governments are realizing that wired broadband is not a realistic option for the residents who need it most. Enter CBRS spectrum, which became freely available in many parts of the country just before the pandemic started.
If cities start to devote political and financial capital to wireless networks in order to help close their digital divides, they will walk a delicate line. One agency may be trying to navigate zoning laws while the other tries to enforce them.
One major US city has already successfully deployed a CBRS network. Tucson CIO Collin Boyce started researching wireless network options at the beginning of the pandemic, and recruited JMA Wireless to help the city build a CBRS network.
The City of Tucson used CARES Act funding to deploy 40 radios on purpose-built poles, city-owned rooftops, and poles the city was already using for public safety connections.
Boyce fielded calls from inside and outside the city from people who were terrified of the network for health reasons. (It is not a 5G network, but that didn’t stop people from calling Boyce from as far away as Europe to share their concerns about 5G’s health impacts.)
In addition, Boyce had to hire people to oversee one construction project because it had the potential to disrupt a Native American burial ground.
Now the network is operational, with more than 800 people connected. That’s a small portion of the city’s population but Boyce wants to expand the network from here. Right now it’s primarily used to connect wireless hotspots, but some CBRS-enabled smartphones are also connecting to it. In addition, Tucson residents who found the network figured out how to connect gaming consoles, smart TVs and other devices that the city had not anticipated. But network policies block Netflix and other streaming services considered inappropriate for minors, since remote learning is meant to be its primary purpose.
Down the road, Boyce wants to use the CBRS network for school bus WiFi, connected traffic signals and other smart city applications. One byproduct of the city’s investment in CBRS was an education program Tucson developed to help people better understand the health impacts of wireless radios and antennas. That’s an asset that could potentially be shared with other cities as they explore ways that publicly owned wireless networks can help bridge the digital divide.