Super Bowl visitors to Minneapolis in 2018 will be able to call, tweet and post with no problem, thanks to crews installing new cellphone equipment on streetlights near U.S. Bank Stadium.
The same was done recently on streetlights near restaurants and shops at West End in St. Louis Park. It could happen next on a popular Wayzata street off Lake Minnetonka.
It’s part of a new wave of “small-cell” wireless technology, which uses nodes attached to streetlights and flagpoles in areas where there’s a high demand for data.
A bill approved by the Legislature this session regulates small-cell technology, one of about a dozen similar bills passed across the country. The bill caps the amount of rent a city can charge a company to install cells on any city-owned infrastructure in the public right of way and prohibits cities from an outright ban on it.
“Our customers are demanding this, whether they’re in Hudson, Stillwater, Minneapolis or Eden Prairie,” said Paul Weirtz, president of AT&T Minnesota, adding that the company spent $40 million in upgrades before this year’s Super Bowl in Houston. “… Many times, you don’t even know they’re there.”
Across the metro area, cities are anticipating more requests for the equipment, which is designed to be placed in clusters as opposed to the tall communication towers people most often notice. While less obtrusive, the equipment isn’t a substitute for those towers.
In Bloomington, the technology has been installed by Hyland Lake, and AT&T wants to install more by hotels and the Mall of America for the Super Bowl. In St. Paul, three dozen units have gone in near downtown and on Grand Avenue.
Minneapolis has approved more than 200 of the small-cell units since 2015, mostly near downtown spots like City Hall. Both temporary and permanent units have been installed outside U.S. Bank Stadium and the convention center by companies such as T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T.
“The industry, our residents and our visitors want it,” said Jon Wertjes, Minneapolis’ director of traffic and parking services. “It’s a good asset for cities to embrace.”
Installing more towers
Thanks to a rising number of smartphones and tablets, cities face a growing number of requests for the so-called macrosites, or large communications towers. But experts say companies may rely less on towers as small-cell technology increases.
That may be good news to residents who don’t want to have the visual nuisance of a tangle of antennas and cell equipment overhead.
A few years ago, Minnetonka denied a request to put up a 90-foot cellphone tower next to a synagogue after neighbors opposed it. In Apple Valley, the city approved a new communications tower earlier this year on a church despite some concerns about an 84-foot-tall eyesore.
And in Wayzata this month, crews are installing a 195-foot-tall telecommunications monopole behind a middle school’s ball fields despite residents’ concern that it will lower property values. Officials said it is difficult to place a pole anywhere in a small suburb where it won’t affect a neighborhood.
“Everybody wants that service,” said Dave Dudinsky, the city’s director of public service, adding that shrubs and a taller fence will be added to the school site. “We look at the aesthetic concerns.”
Other cities have gotten creative. In place of an unused water tower, Eagan unveiled last winter a “stealth” 198-foot-tall communications tower that cost $1.7 million. Its 5,400-plus colored bulbs light up at night, hiding cell technology and radio antennas; while it often takes on Eagan’s green hue, it can also add visual effects like a popping champagne bottle on New Year’s Eve or red, white and blue on July 4th.
Near Afton State Park, a cell tower built a few years ago resembles a pine tree. In Burnsville and Eden Prairie, cell equipment is hidden at churches in crosses and a tower. In Lakeville, a bank has a cell pole that resembles an oversized flagpole.
As more people rely on devices to access data, experts say the new small-cell technology will help offload data use from overloaded cell towers.
The technology being installed now is for the 4G networks, but the legislation passed this year will also apply to the technology when companies unveil 5G, the next generation wireless network.
“Minnesotans currently are seeing a benefit from this technology and will see that only get better,” said Michael McDermott, vice president of state government affairs for Verizon, which lobbied for the legislation. “This is going to be transformative.”
The legislation includes an annual cap on rental fees of $150 a pole to keep costs down for cell companies; cities were charging thousands of dollars. Cities can still deny small-cell technology under certain conditions, but can’t outright ban it.
Cities initially opposed the bill because it would have stripped out local control.
“It’s something wireless companies were pushing very hard for,” said Laura Ziegler of the League of Minnesota Cities. “It’s definitely a national trend.”