On August 7, after months of meetings and tinkering with different plans for 5G regulations, county supervisors chose a path. The new rules will guide the placement of next generation technology in the unincorporated areas, but the days of the major-use permit are over.
The federal government's small cell order that took effect in January aims to clear-cut a path for the 5G network and limits local control over deployment. (The county has filed an amicus brief in support of other jurisdictions challenging the FCC order).
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"It's the worst feeling in the world when the community comes here, we can't mitigate your concerns, and then we get to look you in the eyes and tell you our hands are tied,” said supervisor Kristin Gaspar.
As some saw it, supervisors simply made the wrong choices, and public safety could be affected. But was the problem jammed signals and other radio interference – or the 1000-foot setbacks that put small cells too far from where people gather in emergencies?
On one side of the issue was Bob Gonsett, a broadcast consulting engineer who runs a radio lab in Fallbrook, warning that the network could garble or obliterate emergency communications. On the other side were the telecom companies, saying their networks are vital to public safety.
There is a "gaping hole in the small cell proposal. That hole offers no protection for the regional communications system, or for my laboratory," Gonsett told supervisors at a meeting the day before.
Gonsett's lab monitors public safety alerts for radio and TV for clients, including a primary emergency alert system station for Orange County. "Our involvement with EAS alerts is for broadcast only, not cell phones," he said.
Gonsett makes sure his broadcast clients operate on the right frequency. And in the course of work, his lab occasionally reports radio interference that affects the county's regional communications system. This "gratis" reporting calls out "brute force overloading," as with garbled communications, which he says is just one type of interference.
Gonsett wanted "protective language" added to the zoning code. Full-size towers are already covered to discourage interference, but "no similar language is applied to small cells."
It could simply say no radio interference shall be caused to the regional communications system, and other licensed radio systems. Gonsett said he is the only public safety radiofrequency receiving lab he knows of in the county.
Supervisor chair Dianne Jacob agreed to later ask staff if they can consider radio interference.
Is the regional communications system really at risk? Supervisors didn't have a ready answer.
Did AT&T know? "I just have one question on the radio interference," Jacob said. "From a public safety standpoint, we don't want any interference with our regional communications system, which is our emergency communication system."
And "would there be any interference with an individual's 911 call?"
AT&T spokesperson John Osborne said no. "We're not going to be operating on the 800 MHZ frequency the county uses. And the small cells would not interfere with a 911 call, but could actually allow more people to make 911 calls.
Each carrier has a spectrum license that gives them "blanket authority to use that spectrum and that radiofrequency only for your use within the county." There's no interference "because we're on the spectrum we're licensed to use," and can use anywhere in the county, Osborne said. "So that's from the FCC."
AT&T isn't planning to put thousands of small cells in the unincorporated area, Osborne said. "We currently have only 24 nodes in our 18-month plan." But the 1000-foot setbacks from schools, churches, daycare centers, and hospitals would put a crimp in their expansion.
The planning commission had recommended the setback of small cells from such sites in the public right-of-way be 100 feet from the nearest building. Supervisors settled on 1,000 feet, instead, citing aesthetics. The FCC order allows jurisdictions to develop regulations related to aesthetics, but small cells can't be prohibited.
The companies saw the 1000-foot setback as doing just that.
A letter from Verizon attorneys on Aug. 6 warned that it "would place much of the unincorporated county off limits."
Paul O'Boyle, an attorney for Crown Castle, asked for a continuance on the ordinance. "It's all about public health and safety – this ordinance does the exact opposite." The county's emergency services "use our networks to get that information out. We're just as essential as the county's networks."
The setback from schools and churches "doesn't make sense. This is exactly where people congregate during emergencies. You need coverage there."
"These small cells only power about 300-500 feet at the most."
Sprint also sought a continuance. Mary Hamilton, a Sprint Network project manager, said the rules would impede access to high-speed technologies. “More importantly, if left in the current state, the ordinance you’re considering today may cripple the next generation communications 5G will make available to first responders" and to citizens in times of emergency.
But just how far the small cells reach was another point of uncertainty.
While traditional towers have a range of 18-20 miles, 5G small cells only reach up to 1600 feet, said county planner Eric Lardy.
Osborne said that from one small cell and the next, areas with lots of buildings, trees, and curvy roads slow things down. If it was an airport runway with no interference, "you might be able to get 1000 feet."
But a Verizon commercial suggests that millimeter waves, which will be part of 5G networks, can travel up to 3,000 feet.
During board discussion, a motion made by Jacob reduced the 1000-foot setback to 300 feet from schools, childcare centers, hospitals and churches, while adding sheriffs' and fire stations.
Since Gonsett's lab is located near a fire station, no new language was added to protect it.