Two California lawmakers want to declare cell sites not a municipal affair

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The new legislative year is bringing with it a new effort to further preempt local government authority regarding where and how cell sites can be built. Senate bill 649 was introduced last week by senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego County), the chair of the senate energy, utilities and communications committee, and co-authored by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), who has been a good friend to mobile carriers in general, and AT&T in particular. Depending on what the final language looks like, it potentially will exempt tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of future cell site installations from local permit reviews.

As it currently reads, SB 649 creates a new category of cell sites – small cells – and puts it in the same, statutory preemption bucket as collocation facilities, which are additional antennae and such that are tacked onto existing towers. In other words, small cells will “have a significant economic impact in California and are not a municipal affair”.

What’s a small cell? SB 649 defines it by reference to a federal standard, which says, in effect, that it’s a wireless facility with no single antenna greater than three cubic feet in volume, and total antenna volume no greater than six cubic feet. “Associated equipment”, such as transmitters and power supplies, can add up to another 35 cubic feet. If you’re trying to picture it, think of a pole with a couple of oversized carryon suitcases at the top and a coffin bolted on below.

The bill that’s in the hopper now doesn’t actually say that small cells will not be “subject to a city or county discretionary permit”, as collocation facilities are currently privileged to be. But it does set the table for adding that exemption as SB 649 moves through the legislative sausage machine – there would be little point to the bill otherwise. AT&T-backed bills, for example, are infamous for beginning life as something fairly innocuous, but eventually turning into something more pathological as amendments are made.