Lake Forest will finish negotiations with Verizon Wireless for small cell phone transmitter installations on city-owned streetlights but future wireless infrastructure contracts with wireless companies will be handled by the city’s consultant, 5 Bars Communities.

The city is the latest in Orange County to grapple with the increasing demand for more wireless reception and higher speeds while making sure the most modern transmitters and related equipment can be upgraded faster and aren’t visually offensive to residents.

“Things are already in the process (with Verizon). I’m concerned about handing off to someone who has to start from square one,” Councilman Dwight Robinson said of the Verizon negotiations.

The five-member City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to have city staff finish the negotiations with Verizon and then have Irvine-based 5 Bars handle future contracts. Mayor Pro Tem Leah Basile left the meeting just before the item was discussed due to illness.

Instead of handing off the ongoing negotiations with Verizon to 5 Bars, city employees will execute the contract for 15 to 20 sites for small cell transmitters on city-owned streetlights. Each installation will bring the city $2,000 a year. The small cell transmitters help the current cell phone towers by providing more coverage in denser areas where the towers can’t be built.

Small cell transmitters are a new technology being deployed by the wireless industry to help roll in 5G, the next generation of cell phones. The transmitters on the poles are about the size of a shoebox.

They are being installed on telephone poles, streetlights and city buildings and use relatively low-power frequencies, which is why the industry wants to install a quarter of a million small cells throughout the country in coming years.

The city contracted with 5 Bars Oct. 9 for its claimed protections from legislation that was making its way through the Legislature, and to help roll out the small cell sites faster. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill Oct. 15 at the 11th hour. In addition to the shoebox-sized pole transmitters, the bill also would have allowed up to 35 cubic feet of ground equipment.

The bill, SB 649 by Democratic Sen. Ben Hueso of San Diego, would have taken nearly all discretionary review away from cities and allowed telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon to install small cell wireless transmitters. It also would have capped the income received by cities from the telecommunications companies at $250 per unit a year. Currently, the market rate is about $2,000 a year for each installation.

However, Lake Forest doesn’t own most of the streetlights in the city, Southern California Edison does. Edison employee Alexandra Martin told the council about the numerous steps required in the city’s acquisition of the poles through a process called “decommissioning,” which could delay the small cells and hold up 5G longer.

“All of the streetlights that exist in all of the cities — none of them are designed for a cell site,” Martin said. The old poles have to be removed and replaced by slightly larger ones, she said.

“They are beefier than your usual pole,” Martin said, adding that wireless carriers pay for the removal and construction of the new poles. There’s two approaches to existing Edison poles, she said. Either the wireless carrier works with the city to decommission the poles and to replace the streetlights, or the carrier works directly with Edison on installing small cell transmitters. The choice is left to the wireless company, but streetlights in both cases need to be replaced.  

“I’m just confused why Verizon would come (to Lake Forest) if there’s two different options,” Councilman Andrew Hamilton said.

Assistant to the City Manager Carlo Tomaino said going through the city could be faster for the companies.

“The carrier is making a business decision. What they’re looking to do is whatever they feel the easiest entry into the market is, that’s the option they’re going to pursue,” Tomaino said. “It’s the carrier’s choice and they’re looking for the opportunity to get them to the finish line that is more effective.”

If the wireless carrier works directly with a city, it submits an application for a cell site, which requires city approval and an agreement on the pole design, according to a Thursday email from Edison. From there, the wireless company and city work together to order a new pole — independent of Edison — and a utility service through Edison so the streetlight and small cell get power. After that, the pole falls under city ownership and the wireless carrier is licensed to use it from the city.

Mayor Scott Voigts asked Tomaino what the fastest process for the future would be.

“It depends on the location of the site,” Tomaino said, adding that the city has a relationship with Edison. “We’re each relying on each other’s entitlement processes to get this through (the city taking ownership of the poles).”

Tomaino said it could be faster in the future to use 5 Bars to negotiate with wireless companies over installation of transmitters on city-owned streetlights.

Meanwhile, 5 Bars Vice President Greg Steininger said while the firm doesn’t build anything, 5 Bars works with all four major wireless carriers in the area as an advocate for the city.

“This is all we do. This is our sweet spot. We work with the carriers, we advocate on behalf of the city. We kind of become part of your staff so the staff is not looking at 50, 100, 150 applications at a time.”

Steininger added Tuesday night’s discussion was more about what Verizon and Edison does with the poles, rather than the specifics of what 5 Bars will do on behalf of the city.

Martin said streetlights need to be taken over by the city first if 5 Bars is going to handle negotiations and manage the poles because the firm can only manage city assets.  

The struggle to deliver higher connection speeds isn’t unique to California — it’s a national fight.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is looking into how to more quickly roll out 5G and has said regulations that apply to the old cell towers aren’t relevant to small cell transmitters.

“Here’s the bottom line: Rules that were designed for 100-foot towers might not make sense for small cells that are the size of a pizza box,” Pai said in a September lecture series in Texas.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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