Small Cell Technology

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What is Small Cell Technology?

With the growth and expansion of the telecommunication industry and the public’s increased use of cellular phones, “small cell” facilities were recently introduced by cellular carriers to respond to the consumer demand for capacity.  “Small cell” facilities (also referred to as “nodes”) are typically placed on light poles, traffic signals, or new poles within the public right-of-way. They are lower-power, smaller-scale facilities that supplement larger “macro cell” facilities and increase network capacity in areas with high user densities.

The City has received multiple applications for small cell facilities in Costa Mesa from four companies (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon). Based on the growth and expansion of the industry, the City expects many more small cell facility applications to be submitted in the future.


Federal and State Laws

Location and Aesthetics

Under 332(c)(7)(B)(i)(II) of the federal Telecommunication Act of 1996, the City may not regulate the placement, construction, or modification of wireless service facilities in a manner that effectively prohibits the provision of personal wireless services; however, local governments may review a proposal for aesthetic considerations and require a design that is visually compatible with the surrounding area.

Furthermore, on January 14, 2019, FCC Regulatory Order 18-133 was issued rejecting the prior interpretation of “effective prohibition” that allows cities to make decisions on a small cell proposal based on a “significant gap in coverage” and the “least visually intrusive” design and location. Instead, the FCC adopted a lower threshold. Thus, “effective prohibition” occurs when a City “materially limits or inhibits the ability of any competitor or potential competitor to compete in a fair and balanced legal and regulatory environment.” 


Health and Safety

Pursuant to Mobile Services provisions of the Telecommunications Act, 47 U.S.C 332(c)(7)(B)(iv), a local government may not regulate the site of wireless telecommunication facilities on the basis of the perceived health effects of radio frequency (RF) emissions if the proposed facilities comply with FCC regulations concerning such emissions. 

Any small cell facility proposed in the City is required to comply with Title 47 - FCC’s rules and regulations, including those related to FCC Radio Frequency Safety Guidelines. Within 30 days of the installation of a telecommunications facility, the City requires each applicant to submit to the City Development Services Department an in-field Radio Frequency (RF) analysis from an RF Engineer which details the amount and location of emissions from the telecommunications facility measured in field. The RF Engineer must certify that the facility, as installed, complies with all applicable RF-related FCC regulations.


Shot Clocks

FCC has adopted “shot clocks” that establish specific deadlines within which local governments must complete their review and approve or deny a wireless facility proposal. Per FCC Order 18-133, the City must process small cell facilities within the required 60-day and 90-day shot clocks for colocations and new facilities, respectively, or the facility is automatically approved.


Local Laws

In 2008, the City adopted an ordinance requiring approval of a minor conditional use permit (MCUP) for any proposed telecommunication facility within the public right-of-way that does not meet certain criteria listed in Section 19-15 of the Telecommunications Regulatory Ordinance (Chapter I of Title 19) of the Costa Mesa Municipal Code (CMMC). An MCUP is subject to consideration by either the City’s Zoning Administrator or the Planning Commission (depending on project details).

On October 16, 2018, the City Council adopted Ordinance No. 18-09, which amended Title 19 of the CMMC, Chapter 1, Article 4 – to include compliance with Small Cell Telecommunication Facility Design Guidelines among the evaluation criteria for small cell facilities. On April 2, 2019, the City Council approved a further refinement of the Design Guidelines to comply with FCC Order 18-133.

Small cell design guidelines were adopted to provide guidance and assure a degree of visual consistency in the design and configuration of wireless telecommunication facilities installed within the City. The intent of the design guidelines and CMMC criteria is to present an objective set of design standards and encourage compliance with those standards by providing a streamlined process for facilities that comply.  The design guidelines are in the form of a graphic exhibit, which is available at the City’s Planning Division public counter and online.


Helpful Links:

Renderings for Proposed Small Cell Facilities in Costa Mesa

Carrier Plan Comparison_Comprehensive