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Town, City Team Up To Come Up With Plan For Small Cell Wireless Deployment

Small cell node
Creative Commons/Wikipedia
There already are 50 small cell permitted locations (35 in Bloomington, 15 in Normal), with frequent requests from companies looking to add more.

The City of Bloomington and Town of Normal are working together to hire a consultant to help establish rules for deploying wireless technology all over the community in ways that do not become eyesores.

The city and town hope to jointly hire the consultant by mid-September to set shared rules for companies that want to install small cell wireless systems on utility poles, traffic signals, and other structures. That could set the stage for faster 5G wireless speeds in Bloomington-Normal, among many other uses.

Small cells are essentially wireless transmitters and receivers, mounted on poles 50 feet tall or less, that provide network coverage to smaller areas. There already are 50 permitted locations (35 in Bloomington, 15 in Normal), with frequent requests from companies looking to add more.

Local communities are largely pre-empted by the federal government and don’t have a ton of say on where small cells will pop up. But the town and city want to partner with those companies as much as possible, said Vasudha Gadhiraju, director of innovation and technology at the Town of Normal.

“We want to make sure we’re not littering our public places with a whole bunch of small cells,” she said. “Through this (hiring a consultant) process, we’ll come up with ways to not only deploy faster, but also protect and preserve what we value most: our public spaces.”

Bloomington Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus said it made sense for his city and the Town to work together on this.

“This technology is something that impacts both of our communities universally,” Tyus said. “It makes sense for our guidelines to be consistent, so as companies come into our communities, they don’t have one set of rules in one place, and then go right across the border and they do something different.”

Small cells have been in place in larger metro cities for more than a decade, said Gadhiraju. Their utility is much broader than just 5G or any single generation of connectivity, she said, adding having the technology in place strategically is a key economic development tool.

“The need is not just driven by people, but also by systems, like connected and autonomous vehicles, and many applications that are being developed,” Gadhiraju said. “There’s a lot of system-based need that’s already begun, and it’s going to grow.”

If deployed strategically, small cells could bolster internet access in underserved neighborhoods in Bloomington-Normal, Tyus said. The pandemic has put those inequities in a new perspective, Gadhiraju added.

“Pretty much everybody is moving remote, and we need to make sure that our infrastructure is capable of supporting every neighborhood and every part of our community, to take advantage of that remote work or remote learning,” she said.

Companies looking to deploy small cells can either construct a new pole or “co-locate” on an existing structure, such as a city streetlight, traffic signal or a private utility pole.

“We typically prefer co-location, depending on the facility,” said Normal Town Engineer Ryan Otto. “A lot of times there are issues with co-location, though, in the form of property rights, additional material costs, or potentially technical limitations based on what the pole is currently used for.”

The local governments themselves also could benefit from partnering with companies that want to deploy small cells, Tyus and Gadhiraju said. That ties into the “Smart City” approach to government, in which technology is used to inform decision-making and better serve residents.

“Maybe there’s an opportunity for a company to co-locate on some city or town poles,” Tyus said, “whereby we’re better able to measure traffic patterns or accident patterns, or other things that will help us make decisions about signalization and lane usage or lane sizes.”

The Town of Normal recently launched an online hub for small cell information, including FAQs and a map of permitted locations.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.