Planning Commission

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Jul 02

Planning for Wireless Communication

Posted on July 2, 2015 at 2:22 PM by Michael Stokes

Wireless telecommunication is driven by rapidly changing technology, consumer demand, and the legal landscape. In the last several years we have seen the introduction of smart phones, the diminishing use of land line telephones and adoption of new legislation for wireless communication antennas. In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that cell phone ownership among adults has exceeded 91%. The research also showed that over 35% of household rely upon cell phone service and no longer maintain a land line. The widespread use of cell phones for texting, tweeting, and the increasing availability of wifi has generated a need for new antennas to receive and transmit increasing amounts of electronic data. As the public continues to use their indispensable wireless equipment, the wireless communications industry is challenged to keep up with demand by installing more infrastructure.  Growth of this industry will continue to impact communities so they must plan to minimize the effects of wireless infrastructure.

In recent years, both the federal and state government have enacted laws to enable wireless companies to locate additional antennas.  The United States Congress enacted legislation to streamline the approval process for antennas located on existing structures through the enactment of Section 6409 of the federal Middle Class Tax Relief Act of 2012.  The Wireless Broadband Collocation Act of 2012 was enacted in Pennsylvania later in 2012 to further clarify the approval process of wireless telecommunications facilities. This act requires municipalities to approve certain types of proposed collocated antennas as a simple building permit.  The act also establishes a time frame for municipal review with a deemed approval occurring if no action is taken.

Industry is also working hard to deploy new technology to provide additional wireless coverage to meet increasing demand.  Lower power antenna networks that can work at reduced heights provide new placement opportunities.  More antennas at lower elevations will lead to location of antennas on utility poles within the public right of way. Since this is a new area for wireless infrastructure, municipalities may need to develop standards to manage these facilities.

Municipalities can encourage telecommunication providers to place antennas on municipal property. This provides a great opportunity for municipalities to receive rental payments.  Also wireless communications companies will offer the placement of local government emergency management equipment on sites located on public lands. 

Yet simply adopting new regulations for wireless communication skips an important planning step.  Just as local plans address various forms of public infrastructure; it is time to start planning for wireless communications infrastructure.  This process begins by understanding the existing wireless infrastructure serving a municipality.  Determination of existing wireless service coverage is an important planning step in ensuring how readily local wireless communications needs are met.  This is essential to emergency management as well as the health of local businesses and the overall quality of life enjoyed by area residents.  Projecting future demand is a difficult but necessary step.  After estimating wireless infrastructure need, the big question is how to fulfill it without adversely impacting the community.  Consideration should be made of available tall structures such as towers, buildings, and poles that could support wireless antennas.  In areas without existing structures, different forms of new tower placement and disguises should be considered.  Also, other technologies for wireless service should be examined within the comprehensive plan.  Wireless communications policy can be based on aesthetics, safety and universal service for all residents. With a policy in place, a community may then be able to work effectively with the wireless industry through the enactment of appropriate standards. 

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Multiple antenna systems on one tower in Limerick

A DAS antenna system on a utility pole

A tower used by an eagle

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An antenna system on a high voltage electric tower in Willow Grove

Antennas co-located on a building in Norristown

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A stealth tower in Spring Mill


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