Jackson grapples with new wireless rules

By Cody Cottier

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — New federal regulations pre-empting local control over wireless equipment prompted town officials to re-examine their policies on telecommunications infrastructure in an effort to guard Jackson’s character.

For the past several years the town has limited those wireless facilities to specific zones and prohibited them in the public right of way. But in less than two months a new order from the Federal Communications Commission — which Councilor Jim Stanford deemed “outrageously unreasonable” — will make the right of way fair game for “small cell facilities.”

“The FCC is literally stuffing this down our throats,” Stanford raged at a council meeting Tuesday. “And they’re stuffing this down our throats with so little ability to regulate it and with so little time.”

The facilities are essentially tiny antennas meant to provide small-scale cell service to a specific area, like a single block, where larger cell towers don’t meet demand. Downtown Jackson regularly runs into that problem in peak tourism season.

The order would allow small cell facilities to be placed in the right of way so long as they meet design standards for height, size, frequency and alignment with community character. Developers typically integrate them into light poles, of which Jackson has 750.

The council in general, and Stanford especially, resented the federal agency’s jab at their authority. He cited Wyoming’s long-running history of railing against governmental overreach.

“I have zero faith in the FCC,” he said, “to actually legislate the public interest and the public welfare here.”

Wary of potential health effects and of the ceaseless craving for higher levels of cell service, he suggested the council “do something about it.”

“What would you do, Jim?” Mayor Pete Muldoon asked.

“Tell the FCC to take a hike,” Stanford answered.

He’d be in good company. Dozens of cities — including Los Angeles; Seattle, Las Vegas and San Jose, California — took legal action challenging the commission’s order.

But the outcome of that litigation is uncertain. And if the town doesn’t have its own restrictions in place by the time the law takes effect, it will have no basis for rejecting requests for small cell facilities. As Assistant Town Attorney Lea Colasuonno put it, “You are pretty defenseless.”

“I think the worst thing would be if we did nothing and then threw our hands up,” Muldoon said. “We do need to be prepared.”

So the councilors — besides Stanford — agreed to have town staff begin crafting regulations on the new wireless infrastructure. They will likely try to limit small cell facilities to existing street poles, rather than allowing new ones to be erected. It’s unclear how far apart they will require the facilities be spaced.

It won’t be simple to create all-encompassing guidelines for these installations, said Principal Planner Paul Anthony, because there are many types of poles in various locations.

“It’s a pretty messy area to be dealing with,” he said. “A lot of communities are trying to write regulations that take care of all the different potential weird situations.”

In particular, town planners have been studying the “pretty prescriptive standards” in place at South Jordan, Utah.

So far AT&T has told town staff it would like to install 10 to 15 small cell facilities spread across town along Broadway and in other areas. But Stanford is skeptical, noting the ever-increasing number of requests from telecommunication companies for cell towers.

“What’s 15 today will be 50 in a few years,” he added. “It’s never-ending.

“Are we going to have to go to the farthest recesses of the Thoroughfare to be free from being bombarded by this?” Stanford said. “I own a cell phone. … I didn’t set out to be a Don Quixote crusader against this stuff. But I’m constantly pushed to the point of bewilderment.”

Town officials plan to update the land development regulations to include regulations for small cell facilities by April 15, a day after the FCC order will take effect.