A proposed county ordinance would serve as guidance for tech companies as they deploy new technology in the area, mirroring a statewide effort to bring broadband access to more rural areas.
The proposed rules, up for a vote from the Hall County Board of Commissioners on July 25, would regulate the sizes and fees for poles and the technology such as antennas that may be moving in.
Srikanth Yamala, the county’s planning and development director, said the county does not currently have an ordinance that would address this technology’s installation in the public right of way.
Under the new ordinance, any new, modified or replaced pole on a right of way zoned residential cannot be more than 50 feet tall. In areas that are not zoned residential, poles must be 50 feet or shorter, or within 10 feet in height of the highest pole within a 500-foot radius, whichever is higher.
The rules would provide some direction in what is largely uncharted territory, as residents in more rural areas have long wanted easier access to broadband services.
Commissioner Shelly Echols has seen the need firsthand. Her family relies on using cellular hotspots for internet access at their home in Alto. The hotspots aren’t always enough, especially when her daughter needs to get her homework done.
“We tried the satellite internet option, and we were paying upwards of $200 a month for it,” Echols said. “It wasn’t a service that we could use, and it didn’t meet our needs at all. In some instances, it was as slow as dial-up connection.”
She said costs add up and residents have fewer options when people can’t access the internet from home.
“A lot of students here are trying to complete homework assignments. Think about people who may be able to telecommute to work if they had internet access at their homes. It almost boils down to a standard of living type thing,” Echols said. “You have to pay more for your television provider because you can’t do the less expensive streaming options. … There are a lot of things that are more expensive because you don’t have access to internet.”
But Echols said that while the technology is necessary, she understands residents’ concerns about how it could be installed.
“Before any providers are allowed to put these antennas or whatever they may be called in neighborhoods or residential areas, it should almost be like a rezoning-type hearing that the commission has to approve them before somebody can just come and put something in your front yard in the right of way,” she said.
Under the proposed ordinance, the “small wireless facilities” would need approval from the county’s planning and development staff. An application could be denied if the technology would interfere with traffic control equipment, sight lines for drivers or pedestrians, or a planned public works project that is scheduled to be done within the next six months. The proposal could also be struck down if it doesn’t comply with the ordinance or would restrict handicap access in the area.
At a June 13 public hearing, residents said they were concerned about how the technology could affect people in residential areas.
Douglas Aiken of Murrayville said he would like carriers to submit site plans so people know what to expect if they live in a neighborhood where the county owns the road and the right of way.
“There’s no public notice, no public input, and the first thing you’re going to know, you hear a backhoe running in what you thought was your front yard, but it happened to be the right of way,” he said.
Brian Adolf of Braselton said there were still too many unknowns about exposure to the technology, and he was also worried about property values in his neighborhood with the equipment.
“If I have this ugly, short little cell tower in front of my house … don’t put it in my front yard. It’s crazy,” he said.
Megan Higginbotham of Braselton said she had also done some research on the technology and found that because it’s so new, there is still some public confusion. She also had safety concerns.
“Our street is a right of way, so we will be affected by this,” she said. “…I’m very concerned, not just about my family but everybody in our community.”
According to the Federal Communications Commission, there is not yet a scientific link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses. However, the FCC does offer some advice on limiting exposure to radio frequencies, such as using speakerphone to limit the device’s exposure to the head or texting rather than making a phone call.
The small cell technology could be used to deploy 5G, a faster version of the 4G and LTE technology phones use today. There is not much research on the safety of 5G specifically. Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, told The Times in an email Thursday that the FCC regulates exposure.
“The Commission has radio frequency exposure limits in place up that cover frequencies up to 100 GHz. They apply irrespective of the type of technology, including 5G,” he said. “... Signals from commercial wireless transmitters are typically far below the (radiofrequency) exposure limits at any location that is accessible to the public.”
The technology has become a priority for tech companies looking to offer faster connections for users.
“The major cellular carriers appear to be focusing on 5G deployments in major cities and densely populated areas,” Chris Adams, the University of North Georgia’s chief information officer for network and telecom services, said in an email. “Phones and devices that can connect to 5G networks are starting to become available now and will likely ramp up over the coming year.”
Adams said 5G will be noticeably faster for people who use up a lot of data on their phones.
“5G will be most noticeable by users who access data intensive resources such as 4K video streaming and large file downloads thanks to a huge increase in bandwidth available to enabled devices,” he said.
Adams said infrastructure will have to be updated because 5G equipment needs to be installed fairly close to the devices people will use.
“In some cases, 5G radios and antennas are being deployed on buildings and light poles, in addition to existing cellular towers, to get the service closer to user devices,” he said. “Providing connectivity to these locations will require significant fiber optic and microwave network buildouts.”
Kate Jay, a spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, said the small cell technology needed for 5G and broadband access can often be installed discreetly.
“Small cells are designed to complement traditional cell sites, and are placed strategically to meet data capacity demand in areas of high customer usage,” she said in an email. “In many locations, small cells are ‘hiding in plain sight,’ on existing structures like city traffic lights or utility poles - so, while the average person would just walk right by them, they will experience their benefits, faster network speeds and coverage.”
Small cells can also be used to improve the existing 4G LTE system, Jay said.
The county’s proposed ordinance is intended to align with Senate Bill 66, a state law passed earlier this year that encourages companies to place small cell technology on existing poles.
“Instead of having cell towers that are 200 feet in the air and have lights that blink and you have them all over the landscape … you’re going to see them camouflaged on street lights, light poles and utility poles and buildings around your city or town,” State Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, who introduced the bill, told The Times in April.
Commissioners had been scheduled to vote on the ordinance Tuesday, but Yamala said Monday the vote would be tabled until July 25 so staff could consider community input.