cell equipment
Small cell equipment the size of a pizza box is going up around Montclair.

By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local

As telecommunications companies strive to keep up with bandwidth demands, small cell equipment are popping up on telephone poles where the company is adding fiber optics to improve signals.

A small cell installation consists of small radio equipment and antennas that can be placed on structures such as streetlights, the sides of buildings or poles. They are about the size of a pizza box and are lower-power cell sites that are installed every few blocks, instead of miles apart like those tall cell towers you see along highways and on city rooftops.

But Gray Street residents say the move by Verizon Wireless on their street to install the small cells could cost them in property values and health. Marlon Brown, and his neighbors Shaun Waters and Amy Monaco, asked the Montclair Mayor and Council on Oct. 23 to consider an addendum to the resolution the town approved two years ago allowing Verizon Wireless to add equipment to poles on existing public right of ways.

“We have 38 houses and 41 children on this street. The pole was put up with no communications to residents. We have many concerns and are asking that you consider halting placement of (micro) cell antennas as other towns have done,” said Brown. “There are perceived health effects due to the constant humming sound emitted. Property values may drop by four to 21 percent.”

David Weissmann, Northeast U.S. Media Relations for Verizon, noted that good wireless connections are important factors when people decide to buy homes. The telecommunications company has added equipment to since 2016 when Montclair granted permission.

Weissmann said the small cell equipment operates as a mini cell [tower] site connected by fiber optics to a hub. It’s similar to a home WIFI router, and carries a signal over to the spot needed for more capacity.

“It provides amazing coverage across the country for livestreaming, Facebook, Instagram, Netflix and other uses, helping us stay ahead of the demand,” he said.

Weissmann did not have data on how many have been installed in Montclair.

The 1996 Telecommunication Act doesn’t allow municipalities to exclude the telecommunications companies and they have substantial leeway on the height and size of poles, he noted.

The small cell on Gray Street was later taken down by a Verizon employee, who stated that he would return, Brown said. He explained that the worker told him that the pole needs to be higher than the surrounding trees for the equipment to work.

Montclair is researching, and taking aggressive action on the issue, town officials said.

“Suffice to say this was done without the town’s permission and we’ll take an aggressive approach to get it removed,” Mayor Robert Jackson said.

“We don’t want this all over town,” he added after the meeting. “We could take legal action to ensure the aesthetic quality of our residential areas remains. This is not conducive to a residential area. The what, when, where, and how this equipment goes up we should have some control over.”

Town attorney Ira Karasick noted that small cell antennas on poles are placed above the height of trees and contain a beige box. “Companies like Verizon find that there’s not enough bandwidth to meet growing demands. You could be streaming Netflix and lose the signal. There’s more saturation of data being sent. Federal law [1996 Telecommunications Act] limits our power, but doesn’t abolish it,” he said.

Karasick said he will research if the resolution the township passed can be amended to give the township approval power on where the small cells are installed. “The laws can be murky and messy, but we’ll figure it out,” Karasick said.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the number of small cells deployed is predicted to rapidly increase from about 13,000 small cells nationally in 2017 to 800,000 by 2026. “With an estimated 550 percent increase in small cell installations this year, we could be seeing the benefits of the next generation of wireless before we know it. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to living in the futuristic world 5G is poised to make possible,” Anderson Sullivan of CTIA writes on the web site.