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AT&T Upset Over Small-Cell Proposal In Beaumont

AT&T says regulations Beaumont is proposing for devices that extend service from cell towers violate state law.

The devices, commonly referred to as small-cell nodes, are similar to towers for cell phones. But they can handle massive amounts of data at faster speeds, therefore increasing cell-phone coverage and capacity to provide service.

“To accommodate the surging data that accompanies these solutions, we are turning to small cells to expand and enhance our network,” said Adrianna Bernal with AT&T Public Affairs. “Small cells deliver increased data capacity, help enable higher connection speeds and bring an overall better wireless experience to consumers today — while also preparing for the technologies of tomorrow.”

Just before Tropical Storm Harvey in 2017, the city approved a manual regulating the installation of this technology, Beaumont director of planning and community development Chris Boone said. But city staff quickly realized more regulation was necessary to keep with the city’s aesthetic and paused approving permits this summer.

The manual additions would require poles that hold the nodes to be a minimum of 300 feet from other poles and have street lights on them. Companies also would have to have prior approval from Entergy to install the poles.

Boone said the changes represent the city’s need to keep requirements minimal so private companies can offer residents superior service and maintain the look city officials want.

The nodes and support poles that are easiest and cheapest to construct look similar to small refrigerators stuck on top of telephone poles — not a look the city thinks fits with Beaumont’s aesthetic, Boone said.

“You want to maintain your city’s character, but how do you do that to balance preservation with new technologies as they come along,” he said. “You don’t want to be in a position where you lose out on businesses or residents because you don’t have the technology people are coming to expect.”

The city has come up with a proposal for approved designs that look more like streetlights with metal cylinders on the top with a metal ring in the middle.

Boone said a few poles have been installed that fit the city’s requirements before permit approval was paused.

AT&T has not had any approved, which the company blames on the new regulations. That’s compared to more than more than 700 permits to install small-cell nodes that have been approved in more than 100 Texas cities, Bernal said.

Not only has that halted the business’ expansion of service in Beaumont, AT&T also says the city’s three proposed additions to the regulations violate state law.

The street lighting requirement would result in significant additional cost to businesses and violates state law that prohibits a city from requiring “in-kind,” or gifts that aren’t cash or stock, contributions, Bernal said.

AT&T says the spacing requirement also violates state law because similar requirements aren’t imposed on other utilities.

Third, the company notes that Entergy is not “in the business of providing wireless communications and has no expertise in the ideal location for new wireless facilities.” This requirement also isn’t imposed on other telecommunications providers and, again, AT&T says, it violates state law.

Because of these issues, AT&T is urging the city to take a “full overhaul” of its design manual so the company can bring its small-cell technology to Beaumont residents.

The Beaumont City Council was supposed to vote on the issue earlier this month, but city staff requested a postponement. Boone said he wasn’t sure when the issue might come back for a vote.

It’s unclear what steps AT&T will take should the council choose to pass the regulations as-is.

City Attorney Tyrone Cooper said he wouldn’t comment on the issue because AT&T has made it “adversarial.”

No other telecommunications providers have publicly expressed concern about the proposed changes. – Beaumont Enterprise

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