This is the transcript for episode 238 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. David Young, joins the show from Lincoln, Nebraska, to explain how the community is using small cell technology. Listen to this episode here.
David Young: This infrastructure is coming and you should be prepared for it.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is Episode 238 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. David Young, Right of Way Manager for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska, has been on the show before to tell us about the city's investment in its extensive conduit network and fiber resources. This week David's back to talk to Christopher about a new project that involves improving mobile wireless service throughout the city with small cell technology. Lincoln has recently entered into an agreement with a private provider and, thanks to the resources that are already there, taking the next step to better service in Lincoln is a win-win for the entire community. David and Christopher go through the details and discuss how small cell technology is something local governments can be ready for.
Christopher Mitchell: Hey, folks. This is Chris Mitchell, the host of Community Broadband Bits. I just wanted to ask you if you could do us a real big favor to help us spread the show around and that's to jump on iTunes or Stitcher, wherever you found this show, and to give us a rating, give us a little review. Particularly if you like it. If you don't like it so much, then maybe don't do that. If you're enjoying the show, please give us a rating and help us to build the audience a bit. Thanks.
Lisa Gonzalez: Now here's Christopher talking with David Young, Right of Way Manager for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today I'm back with David Young, the Fiber Infrastructure and Right of Way Manager for the City of Lincoln, the Public Works Department. Welcome back to the show.
David Young: Good morning, Chris. Thanks for having me back.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. I'm very excited to have you back. I've always enjoyed our conversations, especially the off-the-record ones. I'm hoping that for people who maybe are turning in on their first show, you can just give us a quick, quick reminder of what Lincoln is like. I think a lot of people might think of it as just being cornfields.
David Young: There is a lot of corn in Nebraska. Lincoln: 250,000 people; state capitol; a university seat; exciting, growing population; great place to live. Come visit us.
Christopher Mitchell: I have. I really enjoyed it. I'll be coming back. We talked before. You've actually done two different shows with you over the past 13, 14 months talking about the really great conduit system that you've built as a community. Today we're going to talk a little bit about small cells. There's some integration between them. Let's just start off for people who may be thinking, "Small cells? My cell phone's already pretty small." What's a small cell?
David Young: Our cell phones are very small. Those of us who are old enough to remember the old Motorola bag phones are pretty amazed.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes.
David Young: The conversation should start off with macro cells, right? The big cell towers. Nobody wants them in their backyard. Those are the older technology. They cover generally 30 kilometers, are about five miles in radius coverage area. Small cells are generally smaller antennas connected generally by fiber and cover about 3/4 of a mile for coverage area. If you put four small cells inside the five-mile coverage radius, the macro cell, you'll increase the efficiency of that macro cell by 75 percent. That's the math on why carriers are going to small cells. They're easier to deploy. They're cheaper. A macro cell can cost you, base rate, $250,000 and go up from there, depending on where you're putting it. A small cell can cost as low as $25,000 to put in.
Christopher Mitchell: We're talking about primarily wireless from the big wireless companies, kind of mobile wireless rather than a fixed wireless, right?
David Young: Correct. Correct. This is specifically cell phone coverage. Not to confuse Wi-Fi with wireless, but this is licensed by the FCC frequencies, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, those kind of carriers. Regional carriers who license frequency from FCC and provide retail service over it.
Christopher Mitchell: Is this 5G? I hear a lot of times people talk about small cell and 5G in the same breath.
David Young: Well, yes and no. Is it 5G? No. Is it laying the infrastructure for 5G? Yes. Not to get too into the details, but 5G is based on the 5-gigahertz frequency.
Christopher Mitchell: And above, I think.
David Young: And above, right. The distance that the higher frequencies travel is shorter than, say, the 2.4-megahertz range. They can have a lot more information packed into them, but they can't go through trees or buildings as much. What carriers are doing in advance of that is rolling out these smaller antennas, which are closer to the end user, so that when they want to change to or when the technology is actually ready - it's not ready yet - but when they want to change, they can go out, replace the antennas, replace the radios with 5G-compatible, and then start broadcasting the new frequencies. This is laying the infrastructure for 5G, but 5G is several years away, as you know.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk a little bit about why the City of Lincoln cares about small cells. You're an employee of the city. Why have you gone to a lot of effort to make sure you had these sorts of policies available that we're about to talk about?
David Young: Well, a couple of things. Starting in 2012, the city adopted a broadband master plan. We wanted to have diverse carriers for businesses. We wanted to have diverse carrier choices for residents, including a Fiber-to-the-Home project. The third leg of that program was global broadband, making sure that the infrastructure was available for carriers to come in and upgrade for the next 25 years of mobile broadband in Lincoln. Obviously, our conduit system downtown was focused on businesses. Our Fiber-to-the-Home broadband franchise was focused on residential. Now our small cell program is really catered to allowing carriers to come into Lincoln, have one rule book to play by, and deploy as fast as possible and invest their money in Lincoln.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's just dig into that a little bit and let's just pretend that I'm Verizon. I come to the city and I say I'd like to deploy X number of small cells. I'm imagining the city, as a Roman emperor, just thumbs up or thumbs down. What actually goes on to the process behind there? Actually, it might make sense to start with just a sense of are we talking about hundreds of cells, thousands of small cells? What's the universe of the size?
David Young: We expect in 2017 to have between 50 and 100 installed in Lincoln. It depends on if we have two carriers or three carrier partners. Overall, over the next five years, we expect more than 400 to be installed around the city. We think we'll cap out probably at 500 or 600 total in the City of Lincoln. That's when our population grows up to about 300,000.
Christopher Mitchell: That number, several hundred of 500 small cells, that is considerably more cells than you've had before. You mentioned that the macro towers go quite far, but this would be a significant increase over this kind of permitting from historical norms, right?
David Young: Yes, it would be. We're planning for that. We have been planning since the beginning on our broadband. Part of the issue was you can make yourself as attractive as possible, business-friendly, reach out to the community and have a single point of contact, but if you can't get permits through quickly, there's going to be a problem for everybody on the execution side of the agreement. We consolidated all of our permits into one office, a Development Services Center, DSC. Started in 2011, actually. We created a Right of Way permitting process where we have standards. If it's submitted by a licensed professional engineer in the state of Nebraska, then generally you get your permit in two days. The engineer has gone through, done the work, validated that where you're putting your underground or aerial facilities will fit with the city's comp plan and then move forward quickly. With small cells, there's the additional problem or challenge of dealing with aesthetics. We have a Capitol Environs Committee. If you're building in any of the visual corridors that view the capitol building, you have to go before this committee and small cells will go before that committee where they're located in those corridors. We also have an Urban Design Committee for anything in downtown. We have a Historical Preservation Committee for historical areas. Generally, those committees are always focused on the aesthetics of any visual improvement, so building an underground conduit, they really don't care. They're actually quite happy with that and I actually have a good relationship with those committees. Putting in small cells, especially on an ornate pole or something like that, is a challenge. What I'd like to jump back to if I can: why this is a big deal for cities. Some carriers are coming in and saying, "It's a small cell. It's small." In general, the amount of equipment can weigh between 250 and 300 pounds that they're putting on these poles.
Christopher Mitchell: Those poles, they can vary obviously, but you're talking about a significant amount of weight that can be 20 feet up. That creates some hazard potentially.
David Young: Correct. That's from our city's perspective on the safety side. That's why it's a big deal. Some version of this, if a carrier comes in and asks to retrofit your pole, are they taking on the liability if that pole falls down because they added 250 pounds to a pole that was not designed for it? In Lincoln, we require as part of our small cell agreement that the pole be replaced with a pole that is designed for small cell applications and it is double the diameter. Most of our poles are six inches. This is an eight-inch. I say double, but it's an eight-inch diameter pole. Significantly stronger. Significantly thicker side walls. Designed specifically to hold this weight for 25 years, which is the life expectancy we have for these poles in Lincoln. I'm always cautious when some communities say they do retrofit and some say they require new poles. It's a very nuanced discussion. If you have concrete poles and you don't mind conduit and wires strapped to the outside of them, okay, maybe small cells attached to your pole is the thing to do for your community. In a dense urban environment, or urban environment, where you have a lot of cars, I think that it's, from Lincoln's perspective, putting in a pole that was designed to hold the weight of this equipment was paramount. That was what we have included in our agreement.
Christopher Mitchell: As we start talking about this agreement that you've recently signed with Verizon, which I expect is a template agreement we'll see you signing with other carriers as well in the future, I don't get the idea that Verizon thought that was unreasonable. In some ways, I suspect that they would like the ability to standardize on a single pole and things like that.
David Young: That was the one thing that they really did like is if we would agree to a single pole design for the majority of the city and we did. They actually assisted us in the design of the pole. The pole cost is about $2,600. Their equipment cost is $25,000. Adding 10 percent to the equipment cost for them was not a deal-breaker. They felt they would get more reliability from a pole designed specifically to support this load than having to go out if it was knocked down or otherwise fell down and deal with that issue. They were very amenable to that. Now the standard pole design we have fits about 90 percent of our poles. The other 10 percent are historical, entertainment district, capitol environments poles. Those are excluded, but there is a process where they can go get approval for those areas because we want them to deploy this technology. We just want to do it in a safe and considerate manner.
Christopher Mitchell: I think it's worth noting a couple of things, just key details that I want to make sure people really got. That's that we're talking about light poles. We're not talking about utility poles that hold lines and wires and things like that. These are light poles.
David Young: They're streetlight poles, so it's not a traffic pole. It is specifically for lighting the roadway. It doesn't have the red/yellow/green lights on it, if you will. Those are two different styles of pole: traffic pole versus streetlight pole.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. Then the other piece is that in the downtown area, you have banners on it, which will be pretty nice.
David Young: There's two components to a small cell, generally. There can be more. The radio, which is a suitcase-sized piece of equipment that is attached to the side of the pole. Generally, there are two of them - one for each frequency. Then there is the antenna. Many people see them as flat antennas. What we have in our design is called a cantenna, if you think of a stove top hat put on the top of the pole.
Christopher Mitchell: Ah, the City of Lincoln with the stove top hat.
David Young: Yes, yes, I know. Very original. Which you could put three antennas inside that cantenna. As antenna technology changes, you can actually put more of them in there.
Christopher Mitchell: Although, those would be still from a single provider. You're not going to get AT&T and Verizon sharing that is what you've told me.
David Young: Correct. Pole location on poles, while desirable from certain perspectives, it's not desirable from every perspective. Each carrier has their own frequencies. Those frequencies carry/attenuate differently, right? They're on different macro towers around the city. The carriers attenuate, their signals attenuate differently. What the technology is right now, you could end up with 500, 600 pounds of equipment on a single pole. Basically, taking a macro cell tower and shrinking it, but not having an aesthetic improvement. There are several examples where Chicago did something like this a couple years ago. If you get on the Internet and lookup "Chicago small cell colocation," you'll see some pictures. It's not very pretty. It definitely does not meet the aesthetic bar that we were looking for. Allowing carriers to pick from any of our 40,000 poles, we're very unconcerned about which pole you choose as long as it's outside one of our sensitive areas. Put your equipment up, very fast process, you agree to the pole design that is in the agreement, and go forward and grow your infrastructure. That's specifically what we wanted. What we did not want was a shrunken down version of a macro cell on the street corner with 60 antennas on it.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. One of the things that you've told me before is that as we're thinking about what Verizon gets out of this agreement, their ability to rapidly deploy, I think, is very important, right? They have a standardized design. They have a sense that when they put in a permit, you'll turn around pretty quickly and they'll be able to get it out there.
David Young: Correct. Our permit process for small cells is we took two existing processes: our administrator review process, which we use for most of our planning, which is actually run by the Planning Department. Planning events when you're wanting to come in and do a new building downtown or a force main sewer for development, you go through the administrative review process. Then the second process is Right of Way Construction, which is just a two-day permit. By utilizing existing processes to run this through, the Planning Department reviews the small cell application. Is it in a sensitive area - yes or no? Are you using the standard pole - yes or no? If you're proposing no to sensitive areas and, yes, you're using the standard pole, you should get your permit back in less than 10 days. Very quick turnaround. Then on the Right of Way Construction side, we process 500 Right of Way Construction permits a year right now with our Fiber-in-the-Home project. We'll just stick it in there. We're not worried about another 50 or 100 permits in that queue.
Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk about I think the area that I'm more interested in, that a lot of folks are more interested in, which is what does the community get out of this agreement in terms of the way you've set it up?
David Young: The most important thing for us with the broadband community plan was to get better coverage and more investment by private partners in Lincoln. Lincoln and many other communities our size are competing with Houston, Texas, Chicago, New York City for investment dollars. We need to deploy and make ourselves able to have carriers deploy this infrastructure in our community affordably, but not in a way that compromises our principles or agreements that we have of existing carriers. For us, the single most important thing is getting better cell coverage in Lincoln. Period. That's the reason we went into this in advance of being reached out to by any carriers. Going from an average of 12 to 15 megabits a second on a good day to 150 to 180 megabits on a small cell day, as a mobile customer myself, I'm pretty excited about that.
Christopher Mitchell: This seems like one of those things that people don't always appreciate, which is that a company like Verizon is trying to figure out, "Where are we going to invest?" It's not just necessarily the entire United States, but they make look regional. Lincoln wants to be getting that better technology than Omaha. You want to make it easier and hopefully you'll get it and have better coverage than Omaha has.
David Young: Right. Broadband is pervasive in our life these days and it's very painful when you travel and go to a place that does not have that. It really brings into focus how much we become reliant on this technology. I can imagine the rollout of the telephone in the 1900's. The minute you get it, you didn't know what you were living without it. Competing with other places, getting the investment here in Lincoln is kind of the overarching goal. There are several benefits that we have as part of our agreement, which we think are mutual benefits, actually for both the carrier and the city. When the infrastructure goes in, there's fiber for the city placed inside the pole and from our conduit system to the pole. There's power in the pole for public applications. There is what we call a public access port on the pole, which is a standard opening size that is designed to connect either cameras, or public Wi-Fi, or smart radar for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. That's included as well, so we will be able to hook up those applications directly to our public network as soon as the pole's installed really.
Christopher Mitchell: Some of the geekier folks, the utility-minded folks, might be looking at, I mean, there's some things like Verizon will have to take on the cost of maintaining the pole, if presumably lightning hits it or a car drives into it or something. If that happens to a regular pole, your utility has to fix it. If it happens to a pole that Verizon's replaced, then it's on them.
David Young: Well, you have a 12-page contract and there's all kinds of details in there. Maintenance of the pole is the responsibility of the carrier who leases the pole. If it does get knocked down or needs to be painted, that maintenance cost is on the person leasing the pole. The city still owns the pole. In return for that, the carrier gets the speedy deployment and to get to choose their own pole. The city is really not active in saying, "We want you to choose this pole versus that pole." From a philosophical perspective, we're letting the engineering dictate where the pole goes, not the business case, because it's the same price wherever they choose to build their pole. We want good coverage. A few of the other things that are included in the agreement are security. They have a $50,000 letter of security with the city that if there's ever a problem, we contact them. If they don't respond, we will go out, do the work to remove the equipment, and then charge their letter of security. That protects us as well, so we're not exactly concerned about it. I know there's been instances where people are concerned, or other communities are concerned, what happens in 10 or 15 years when this technology is depreciated and they decide they want to move to another area and do something else. How do they get rid of the equipment? That covers us from a risk standpoint to get that equipment removed. For us, I think the most important thing is we're taking an asset that was costing us money and repurposing it for provisioning of services so that our citizens get better cell coverage and faster cell coverage. We get no maintenance cost for the pole and we get the partnership, and investment, and jobs that are created by developing and deploying this infrastructure. We get a few nice things like fiber and maintenance cost to the pole, power, and a little bit of money on the end.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Just to be clear, there's an upfront for Verizon to apply, and then there's a recurring fee for every year that they're on the pole.
David Young: That's correct. We want, we expect, we want, we designed this program specifically to be carrier neutral. Verizon was the first one to work with us. We are very hopeful that AT&T or T-Mobile, Sprint will come as well. We're actually working with one of those carriers right now to sign another agreement. The city charges $1,995, so just under $2,000 a year rent to attach to the pole and then there is a $1,500 permit fee. That $1,500 permit fee covers actually quite a bit: going out looking at the pole, site visits, multiple-type visits, communicating with property owners adjacent to the pole. At $2,000 a year, you have 100 poles, you have $200,000 a year. It's not that much, but over the next five or six years, when you get into 400 and 500 poles, it's a million dollars a year, which is not a bad program to have for a city for taking something that was costing us money and turning it into something that is achieving multiple goals.
Christopher Mitchell: I think one of the things that people don't always realize, I just saw this story out of the Research Triangle in North Carolina, where there's been some challenges with some of the entities that are working in the right-of-way having damaged other people's equipment and not restoring things the way they should be. Those are the sorts of things the city has to be able to check on and that costs money to send people out there and do those investigations, right?
David Young: There's no philosophy behind it. The city is obligated to manage construction that occurs in the public right-of-way. That management of the right-of-way can be very limited in some areas. It can be very robust in others. If you can imagine somebody digging in downtown New York City, that's probably a very sensitive area to dig in.
Christopher Mitchell: Or Washington D.C.
David Young: Versus the western part of our city, which is cornfields. We don't have a lot of infrastructure out there.
Christopher Mitchell: Aha. I knew it. You have cornfields in Lincoln.
David Young: Well, they don't call us the Cornhuskers for nothing. There's 250,000 people in Lincoln and Lincoln is not a big city, so it is a very urban environment digging downtown in the middle of the street. I can tell you you will get a lot of phone calls very quickly due to traffic backup. Basically having enough money. $1,500 is not a lot of money. I mean, it's a lot of money, but it's not a lot of money to go out, send the inspectors multiple times, coordinate the excavation of the pole base, pouring a new pole base, erecting a new pole, putting on the new LED light fixture, and getting everything turned up. That's not a lot of money. We expect two to four weeks for each one of these to be installed, a construction timeline.
Christopher Mitchell: This is something that I want to just touch on quickly and move on to the final question because of time running short, but the things you just noted, there are laws proposed in several states in which localities would not be able to recover those costs. In the past, that is something that I've argued and I'm pretty sure others agree. I think you agree. If a state is going to limit that, then basically that's a shift to taxpayers. One might say, "Well, we were so excited about small cells that we want taxpayers to subsidize it." I don't actually think that's an argument that many people would say given the profitability of the telephone companies today.
David Young: Not very many people I know of would want that. They have a bill proposed in Nebraska as well that does the same thing. It does not allow the city to cost recover for inspection. It doesn't allow the city to charge rent for the pole. I think it's challenging in that carriers want to move quickly and deploy this infrastructure in advance of 5G. Okay, I agree. I get it. From a city's perspective, we feel it's our competitive advantage by being ready and having the agreements and actually actively pursuing these investment dollars. What I do have a problem with is when carriers, small businesses come in - and these are not small businesses - come in and say, "We want the taxpayer to subsidize the deployment of our infrastructure, which we make a profit on." If you're going to pay the taxpayer back, fine. I have no problem with that. If you're creating an unfunded mandate at the state level for municipalities to hire people to manage these construction and then in an area of declining municipal revenues, that's tough. I don't know of any municipality that just has additional positions laying around to go out and inspect projects like that, especially specialized positions. I guess we'll have to see if the state legislatures agree.
Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think it's worth noting I don't want to cast the big wireless companies totally under the bus in the sense that there are areas that I've heard of where communities reject towers. Then they have poor cell service and they're frustrated. To some extent, let's hope that small cells, properly designed, will mitigate that because they'll be less aesthetically displeasing. To some extent, we do have to recognize we cannot have it all. We have to make sure the wireless companies are able to build the infrastructure they need if we're going to get good service. That's where I think Lincoln is setting a good example. I want to end by asking you for advice to other communities that are looking at this and trying to figure out what kind of policies, or what kind of mindset even, they should have to make sure that they can balance public needs with the needs of the wireless companies.
David Young: Well, I think two things. One, I think you should realize as a community that this infrastructure is coming and you should be prepared for it. There's so many resources out there today: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Next Century Cities.
Christopher Mitchell: Those sound like really wonderful groups that people should support.
David Young: They are wonderful groups. They have draft agreements. I think there's really almost no excuse not to have an agreement in draft form, a place to start when a carrier comes to you now. There's been so much talk about small cells and the deployment of small cells that Right of Way managers, IT directors, should have this information at least in their law department being reviewed, any one of the several draft agreements out there. I think San Francisco, Boston, Dallas, ours. Just pick one of the draft agreements and at least have a starting place to have a discussion. I don't think that telling the carrier, "Come back to me in six months or a year," is viable because they have customers they need to serve. This is an impediment to them improving the service and being competitive with the other carriers in the market.
Christopher Mitchell: You've already mentioned that you are discouraged using existing poles. You think it makes a lot of sense to find ways of getting properly-designed poles in there. I don't think we have to rehash that, but do you have any recommendations in terms of the processes that need to be created?
David Young: I would use existing processes, if possible. Creating new processes for a city can be painful. Depends on your culture. Using an existing process. We repurposed the administrative plan review process for small cell reviews. We just created a new category within it. It follows the exact same workflow. The exact same people see it. We've had education with those staff getting ready for this permit. Then on your construction side, our construction permits, having been doing this for 16 years now in the construction space, they should be easy to get, but the follow-through should be significant. I can come in and ask for a permit, that's great. If I have an engineer stamp it, or whatever your municipality requires, fine. If I don't do what I say I'm going to do, then the penalties are pretty significant. I think that way you put the onus on the business to actually get out there and do what they say they're going to do. I think that's what businesses want.
Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to come on once again and tell us some more about what Lincoln's up to. It really is a great place. Strongly recommend people swing through if you're nearby. Thanks again.
David Young: Thank you for that, Chris. Good to talk to you.
Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher and David Young, Right of Way Manager for the City of Lincoln, Nebraska. They were discussing the community's new small cell technology project. Learn more about Lincoln at MuniNetworks.org, where we've written about their investments. You can also hear David talk with Christopher in Episodes 228 and 182 of the podcast. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can follow Christopher on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all the podcasts in the ILSR family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out in our original research - subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to Admiral Bob for the song, "Turbo Tornado," licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to Episode 238 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.