Cell Towers Proliferate & Make Some Noise

wireless communication facility
A Wireless Communication Facility sits atop an APS pole in Desert Hills, with the ground equipment in a nearby backyard. In&Out Staff Photos

Giant cell towers poking above the desert like outsized, lonely palm trees are giving way to less obtrusive installations. New state and county laws and ordinances are fostering installation of Wireless Communication Facilities (WCFs) on everything from rural utility poles to suburban traffic-light structures, all aimed at keeping up with the increase in bandwidth demanded by mobile phone users.

In 2014, Maricopa County passed a new ordinance to meet FCC rules and simplify the approval process to install WCFs. The changes aim, in part, to encourage more but smaller setups to improve phone reception, explained Darren Gerard, county deputy director of planning services.

The rules permit antennas on just about any structure, Gerard said, so long as size limits and other guidelines are met. In theory, a homeowner could put a WCF on their property if the 80-foot pole (the maximum allowed) is at least 160 feet from property boundaries (a 2-to-1 setback).


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Oodles of Antennas

There are seven of these WCFs in New River and Desert Hills. There are 200 on urban, suburban and rural utility poles in Maricopa County, with more on the way, said APS spokesperson Kendra Lee. Each WCF is linked to an air-conditioned equipment station the size of a small bedroom.

At 24th Street and Maddox Road in Desert Hills, APS replaced a pole with a stronger, taller one that now holds a Verizon WCF. Verizon leased space for the ground station from a homeowner at the intersection, said Alan Muller, New River/Desert Hills Community Association president.

Neighbors were not formally notified of the installation, because the permit process doesn’t require it. Once residents saw it, a number of them were opposed, Muller said.

An APS pole in Desert Hills doubling as a cell tower is taller and sturdier than surrounding poles.

Can You Hear Me Now?

On a recent afternoon amid a light breeze and distant car noise, the ground station at Maddock Road emitted a low buzz audible from the street. At night, Muller said, such sounds carry long distances in rural areas.

“The sight of the pole may grow on people,” Muller said. “But you’ll never get the sound out of your head.”

A block wall on a residential lot hides the equipment linked to a cell tower on an APS pole at 24th Street and Maddock Road in Desert Hills.

When the 2014 ordinance was being written, Muller’s group fought for high walls and sound buffering. The ground stations “shall be screened visually and to mitigate noise,” the ordinance now reads, with “a solid screen wall of a minimum 6 feet high, or to the height of intake/exhaust for HVAC and other equipment if higher.

If a utility company, business or residential property owner meets the criteria for a WCF installation, the county has no discretion to deny a permit, Gerard told In&Out. “There will be no public hearing process,” he said, “and the neighborhood has no say-so.”

The FCC, not APS, sets prices for leasing WCF space attached to utility distribution poles, Lee said.

Small and Smaller

Small wireless facilities are sprouting up in neighborhoods across the country to handle explosive mobile broadband demand, according to the Wireless Infrastructure Association, a trade group representing AT&T, Verizon and other businesses. These smaller units improve cell coverage and capacity between larger WCFs, the group says.

Don’t be surprised if you see smaller wireless antennas showing up on traffic-signal poles near you.

A state law that went into effect Aug. 9, 2017 (HB 2365) encourages these smaller antennas. The law allows wireless carriers “to install, operate and maintain small-cell equipment in city and town rights-of-way,” according to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

One effect: The Maricopa County Department of Transportation must now allow “small wireless facilities” to be installed on its traffic-signal poles, said MCDOT spokesperson Nicole Moon. The units are not to exceed roughly the size of an end table. Small equipment boxes will typically be mounted on the poles or nearby. Other municipalities are required to oblige, too. Discuss This Article on Facebook >>>


Community Meeting

Representatives from the county planning office and MCDOT have been invited to discuss these issues at a public meeting.
7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 12
DMFD Fire Station No. 141
43814 N. New River Rd.

Robert Roy Britt
NoPho resident Robert Roy Britt has written for In&Out publications since its inception in 2005. Britt began his journalism career in New Jersey newspapers in the early 1990s. He later became a science writer and was editor-in-chief of the online media sites Space.com and Live Science. He has written four novels.
Robert Roy Britt on Email

Robert Roy Britt

NoPho resident Robert Roy Britt has written for In&Out publications since its inception in 2005. Britt began his journalism career in New Jersey newspapers in the early 1990s. He later became a science writer and was editor-in-chief of the online media sites Space.com and Live Science. He has written four novels.

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