The Forest Park Village Council July 23 took the first step to prepare for the telecommunication industry’s rollout of 5G technology, passing an ordinance regulating the installation of wireless receivers on existing and potentially new utility poles.

Unanimous passage of the ordinance gives Forest Park limited control over “small-cell” antennae and related equipment. 

At the July 23 meeting, Commissioner Tom Mannix criticized the Illinois General Assembly for approving the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, claiming the action deprives municipalities of local control. 

Exactly how these “small-cell” antennae and their related equipment will impact communities is unclear – their number and locations are unknown at this point – but the Illinois General Assembly has given municipalities little room to regulate their placement.

The Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Bruce Rauner in April and took effect June 1, gives wide latitude to telecommunications companies in locating the small-cell technology.

For example, the facilities are allowed by right and are not subject to local zoning review when a proposed small-cell location is within a public right of way or a utility easement that’s small-cell compatible, such as ComEd easements.

In addition, more than one provider can seek to locate a facility, and the related equipment, on a certain pole.

According to the state statute, a “small wireless facility” includes an antenna either located inside an enclosure of no more than 6 cubic feet or an exposed antenna that could fit within a 6-cubic-foot-enclosure. Mannix compared its size to that of a dorm-room refrigerator.

The facility also includes all of the equipment related to the antenna that, according to the statute, would be attached to the pole and would be no more than 25 cubic feet in volume. 

The Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act gave municipalities until Aug. 1 to pass local laws governing application fees and regulate the locations and design standards for small cell installations, to the extent the act allows such regulation.

Mayor Anthony Calderone explained that the proliferation of data-driven devices, such as smart phones, has led carriers to upgrade their facilities.

“The carriers are rethinking their concepts,” he said. “Instead of big towers, they plan to use smaller ones. But also more of them.”

Under the Forest Park ordinance, carriers will pay a $1,000 application fee when a new pole is involved, $650 for a single site with an existing pole and $350 per small wireless facility when multiple sites on existing poles are submitted in a single application. The ordinance also calls for carriers to pay $200 per year per facility on village-owned poles. 

While that will provide some regular source of revenue, the $200 annual fee is far less than wireless carriers pay Forest Park for antennae on existing towers and poles. Village Administrator Tim Gillian said Forest Park collects between $2,500 and $3,500 per month for the antennae on the two water towers.

Gillian also said not only have no small wireless facilities been placed in the village but also that no applications have been filed although telecommunications companies have made “some” inquiries in the past.

According to Michael Marrs, an attorney with the law firm of Kline, Thorpe and Jenkins, the original version of the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act was even less favorable to municipalities. Opposed by municipalities, that version was defeated in 2017, leading the telecommunications companies to negotiate with municipalities on a compromise version, which was approved during the legislative veto session in October.  

Mannix said a trailer bill that was introduced earlier this year would provide municipalities with more power to regulate. He is hoping that bill will be approved during this fall’s legislative veto session.

“Some people in Springfield realized that local control is not a bad thing,” he said, citing the West Central Municipal Conference and State Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch (D-7th) for their efforts. Forest Park is a member of the municipal conference, which is a regional council of governments serving 40 municipalities in west suburban Cook County that was founded in 1980. The 7th District covers the majority of Forest Park. 

Nick Peppers, Forest Park village attorney and a partner with the law firm of Storino, Ramello and Durkin, said the trailer bill would “unwind some of the restrictions.” He also noted that only municipalities that approved local ordinances prior to Aug. 1 would benefit from the trailer bill if it were approved.

The exact impact, visually and otherwise, on Forest Park and other suburban Chicago communities isn’t clear at this point. But the Center for Municipal Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in telecommunications issues such as small-cell technology, believes that without proper local protections, it could be significant.

“Currently the industry is acknowledging that for each carrier, they’ll need one small-cell or DAS [distributed antenna system] per 50 to 75 users,” said Rusty Monroe, co-founder in 1997 of the Center for Municipal Solutions, which has offices in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Albany, New York. 

The company has provided consulting services for about 1,000 communities in 39 states, Monroe said.

“In a typical suburban community, you’re probably looking at one of these for each carrier per block, and perhaps more, depending on population density,” Monroe said, echoing Calderone’s comment.

The reason isn’t coverage, Monroe said, but capacity for things such as streaming video.

“People are being misled about the fact that it’s needed for 5G,” Monroe said. “They’re not being built today for 5G. That’s still being developed.”

Monroe said he believes carriers will need so many small-cell facilities in the future is that 5G technology operates at very high frequencies, which “don’t propagate very far as a usable signal strength.”

As far as visual impact, Monroe said that it would depend on the company and its choice equipment.

“They can be relatively innocuous,” said Monroe. “The problem is what the carriers present to the communities as to what they will look like, and what they build, are often worlds apart.”