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Push To Regulate Next Generation Wireless Tech Hits Fresno, Sacramento

Laura Tsutsui
Fresno CIO Bryon Horn stands next to a traffic signal, a potential site for small cells.

Most smartphone users are used to an immediate internet connection in their pocket, thanks to improved phones and carrier coverage. But increasing use of data and unlimited data plans mean wireless carriers are struggling to meet the demand for a faster, better connection. To address this issue, the next generation of wireless technology has state and local lawmakers at odds.

Ask any millennial how much they use their phone and the answer is “constantly.” Zac Jones, a 20 year old student and avid Red Sox fan, relies on the data in his phone to keep him connected.

“I watch baseball games on my phone, I keep up with all my sports highlights,” Jones says. “I don’t use Wi-Fi at all. 24 hours a day, I’m always on data.”  

Despite being constantly connected, Jones is still familiar with the patience required as videos and apps buffer because the connection is slow.

“We are all in the age where you want things immediately,” says Jones. “You just want something that’s quicker and everyone wants that.”

Luckily for Jones, the City of Fresno has plans to work with carriers on improving wireless connection all around the city.

The key is a new technology called small cells. Small cells are small antennas that would be set up on city-owned property, like light poles and sidewalks, and send out a wireless connection for mobile devices, like phones  and tablets. The size of a small cell can be anywhere from that of a pizza box to a refrigerator.

Bryon Horn is the City of Fresno’s chief information officer. He says small cells are going to help Fresno stay on the front line of changing technology.

“Right now, technology for wireless is expanding and improving rapidly,” says Horn. “So in order to have higher bandwidths and faster speeds, you’re going to need more equipment, you are going to need equipment that is going to be able to handle it.”

Small cells are meant to be the courier of the next improvement to wireless connection, 5G. Connection speeds with 5G might even satisfy smartphone users like Zac Jones.

Horn says that with 5G, processes that currently take minutes, or even hours, could instead be done in seconds.  

Wireless connection in the city is currently provided by macro-towers that take the shape of large white poles or fake trees. Unlike these towers that send out a signal for a very large area, small cells send a very strong signal over shorter distances. Wireless carriers will have to distribute a lot of small cells to cover the entire city.

In May, Fresno announced an agreement with a company called 5 Bars Communities to help bring small cells to city-owned property.

Monnie McGaffigan, the President of 5 Bars, describes the company as an “intermediary” between cities and wireless carriers.

“We work back with the carriers to make sure that the sites that are selected are the right sites for the city, that the rent fees that are paid are appropriate and reasonable, and just really providing that guidance and expertise for the city,” says McGaffigan.

5 Bars will help the negotiate where small cells are placed throughout the city, and how much wireless carrier companies might pay to rent space for their small cell on a sidewalk or light pole.

“Over the next several years, the forecast is about one small cell per a thousand people,” says McGaffigan. “You’re looking at hundreds of these things in the city of Fresno, so getting it right when these get deployed is very important.”

The necessity of small cells has both cities and California lawmakers taking note.

Senate Bill 649 from Senator Ben Hueso is currently moving through the state legislature. The bill would establish one set of statewide rules for small cells, instead of allowing cities to set their own rules.

Tara Lynn Gray of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce says her group supports the bill because they believe it will be good for businesses, users, and the city.

“I really interpreted the legislation as trying to pre-negotiate and to make sure that each side would know what they were up against when trying to deploy small cells,” says Gray.

The League of California Cities opposes the bill. Rony Berdugo, with the League, says that the bill would take away a city’s ability to decide where small cells will be placed, and how much cities can charge carriers to rent space on their property for the cell.

“This shifts all the power to the wireless industry where, unless they are willing to volunteer to agree to a higher lease rate, cities will lose their ability to condition permitting these small cells for those types of benefits,” says Berdugo.

The city and county of Fresno are both officially opposed to the bill, along with over a hundred other cities in the state. The bill would prevent other cities from making agreements like Fresno’s with 5 Bars.

Whether or not the bill passes, though, does not change Fresno’s plans.

SB 649 includes a grandfathering clause that allows existing agreements to stand. So Fresno will still control deployment of small cells, and set the cost of renting space for the devices.

Bryon Horn considers this technology a “stepping stone” for the city of Fresno.

“We need to invest and make sure that we are up there with everyone else,” says Horn. “I would like to be a little bit in the lead if we can. We’re working towards that.”

Horn says that over the next five years, the city estimates earning over two million dollars from wireless carriers. And in about a year, Fresno’s smartphone users may see a big improvement to their wireless connection in the city.

SB 649, meanwhile, has already passed the senate, and is being heard in committees in the assembly.

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.