skip navigation

Preparing for Small Cell Deployments

During 2017, the wireless industry targeted local regulation for preemption in filings before the Federal Communications Commission, as well as orchestrated a concerted national effort in the state legislatures, including in Olympia. Though new legislation (see SB 5711) was not passed this year, the deployment of small cells will intensify and the industry is likely to return to the legislature. During the next several months, cities are encouraged to evaluate their approach to small cell deployment and determine how to appropriately respond to requests for cell siting by companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and Mobilitie. 

What is a Small Cell?

small cell on utility pole

Put simply, a small cell is smaller than the macro cell tower facilities which serve as the backbone of the wireless industry. It contains radios and antennas (often multiple) as well as requires power and fiber in order to transmit cellular phone and data signals. Typically, small cells are attached to utility poles or light/traffic poles within the rights-of-way. The purpose of the small cells is to augment capacity for data traffic in dense areas (primarily downtown cores and residential neighborhoods), and they are typically 25-45 feet in height, rather than tall macro towers that extend beyond 75 feet. For a better understanding of the fundamentals of small cells, visit T-Mobile’s website. (Photo Courtesy of Verizon.

Recommendations on Preparing for Small Cell Deployment

As you prepare your city for small cell deployment, here is a top ten list of recommendations:

  1. Involve Multiple Departments. Since the location of small cells is primarily in the public rights-of-way, the involvement of multiple departments including the public works/engineering, transportation and planning/development services is necessary.  Further, if city-owned poles are rented, then the real estate or finance department should also participate. Determine which department is best suited to take the lead on small cell siting.
  2. Educate Planning Commission and City Council. Engage the council and the public in conversations about small cell deployment and how best to accommodate appropriate technology in the cityscape. 
  3. Engage with the Wireless Industry. The industry can provide educational material and explain their anticipated deployments in the city. Working cooperatively together will help both parties plan effectively to ensure that the cell sites fit with the city’s design standards and meet the industry’s coverage and capacity needs.
  4. Include the Pole Owners. In many cities, the electric utility owns the majority of the utility poles in the public rights-of-way. These companies restrict telecommunications attachments and designs, including height of the pole and the necessity for pole replacements. Make sure that the city’s design standards consider the design requirements imposed by the pole owner.
  5. Draft Code Revisions. Current wireless communications codes were developed to address macro facilities located on dedicated towers and monopoles or attached to buildings or water towers. The old codes do not typically contemplate the use of public rights-of-way or design standards for utility pole attachments. Further, many codes do not address the federal shot clocks and utilize conditional use permit processes which may extend past the timelines.
  6. Prepare for Franchise Applications. Develop a franchise application specific to small cells and draft a template franchise/master permit for small cells. Though similar to other telecommunications franchises, small cells focus less on wireline technology and more on infrastructure attached to facilities in the rights-of-way.
  7. Wireline Deployments. In order for small cells to function they need a fiber connection which requires either an aerial or underground line (in some circumstances microwave technology is used). Expect an increase in telecommunications wireline permits and franchise applications in conjunction with small cell deployment.
  8. Track Shot Clocks. State law imposes a 120-day shot clock for issuing new franchises/master permits and 30 days for right of way use permits. See RCW 35.99.030.  Federal law has shot clock requirements for siting or modifying cell facilities (90 days for colocations, 150 days for new facilities, and 60 days for eligible facilities requests). Mark the date a complete application is received and issue permits in a timely fashion.
  9. Streamline Permit Process. Small cells are typically deployed in batches of 15-30.  Create a process for the streamlined review of permits internally and encourage the wireless applicant to apply for the proposed buildout of entire neighborhoods in order to assess the cumulative impact.
  10. Create Design Standards. Develop generally applicable design standards to guide both the city and telecommunications industry. The technology may drive the design, so collaboration with the industry is beneficial. Also identify if there are some districts in which small cell deployment is not feasible or desirable.

The wireless industry has submitted applications for small cell deployment in many cities within Washington. Preparing in advance of these applications is helpful to ensure consistency between the telecommunications applicants and appropriate planning for the city’s street designs. For more information about small cells, listen to the AWC/Ogden Murphy Wallace webcast or attend the September NATOA conference in Seattle.

Questions? Comments?

If you have comments about this blog post, please email me at or my colleague Scott Snyder at If you have questions about small cells or other local government issues, feel free to contact MRSC using the Ask MRSC form or by calling MRSC at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Elana Zana

About Elana Zana

Elana Zana, a telecommunications attorney, counsels municipalities on a broad range of telecommunications related matters and is is a member attorney with the Seattle-based law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace, P.L.L.C.

She represents municipalities, both individually and in consortiums, working with them to negotiate telecommunications and cable franchises, lease agreements, small cell agreements, pole attachment agreements, drafting right of way use ordinances and zoning codes.

Elana has also represented cities in litigation related to utility tax refund requests. Currently, she is advising over 25 cities in Washington State on telecommunications issues including the deployment of small cell infrastructure.