Technology + Data

Four Steps to Successful Small Cell Installations

We all want the same thing: faster, better and more extensive cellphone coverage. Small cells, in their various incarnations, have been moving into the public right-of-way for nearly a decade, which have served to expand and improve wireless networks. But today, small cells have become essential for maintaining current levels of service because of increased smartphone data demands.

However, while many pole owners have embraced small cell attachments from the beginning, others remain less enthusiastic.

Wireless needs access too

Since 1978, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have recognized the importance of using existing poles to support infrastructure for new technologies.1 In 2011, the FCC clarified that pole attachment laws cover wireless attachments, and it removed any ambiguity about how wireless attachments should be treated by utility pole owners.2

The FCC said that wireless attachments get equal access to utility poles, including pole-top antennas; and that any denial must be on a “case-by-case” basis. It also clarified that wireless attachments get equal rate treatment and make-ready timeframes.

These rules only apply in the 29 states that follow the FCC, but many certified states have, or are in the process of, updating their regulations to capture these edicts in their pole attachment rules, such as Connecticut, Ohio, California and Washington. However, many pole owners already have embraced wireless attachments.

Best practices for integrating wireless attachments

There are dozens of best-practice examples on how to integrate wireless attachments into a utility’s pole-attachment process — from application to deployment. Here are four process steps to conform with FCC requirements:

1. The standard: First, the pole owner needs to develop an attachment standard for wireless attachments that also preserves climbing space. The FCC requires pole owners to allow wireless antennas on the pole top, which can be accomplished by either replacing the entire pole or by using a nonconductive pole extension bracket (either wood or fiberglass). A pole owner can decide which it prefers, but has to extend the same practice to others. The extension bracket is preferred because it saves time and money. Also, all wireless equipment can be attached in conformance with the National Electric Safety Code (NESC) for climbing space, by attaching to one quadrant of the pole and by using a standoff bracket. It is very important that all equipment be allowed on the pole because that is the only way to avoid placing new structures (such as poles, cabinets and meter pedestals) in the public rights of way, which is inefficient and not in the best interest of the community. Also, each location should be capable of full power shutoff using disconnect switches and should have signage with the attacher’s network operations center phone number.

2. The agreement and application: The second step is to either add wireless attachments to the existing pole attachment agreement, or to have a second type of agreement — at the pole owner’s discretion. At a minimum, the application should include a full set of engineering drawings showing the placement and size of the equipment and the pole’s loading calculations. Some pole owners also request information on radio frequency (RF) emissions. This can be accomplished by requiring the RF signage plan, which is required by the FCC and OSHA. If a pole owner wants RF certification, a third-party report by a qualified RF engineering firm is best.

3. Make-ready: Once the wireless attacher submits its attachment information, the make-ready evaluation process begins. If the pole needs to be replaced for attachment standard or loading reasons, the wireless attacher can retain a pole owner-approved contractor. In some cases, the contractor also can attach the wireless equipment. This process has been used successfully in markets such as Philadelphia and Detroit, helping them obtain improved wireless services faster.

4. Installation: This may be handled by the wireless attacher and its contractors, but they must have the proper certifications for any work in the power space. Sometimes, pole owners want to be on hand as well. If everything goes as planned, installation generally takes less than a day. Some pole owners also perform a post-installation inspection.


Small cells are the only wireless networks that will be able to keep up with consumer demand. Current mobile networks have hit peak capacity. Many are overburdened due to the demand for high-bandwidth content, such as streaming video and mobile gaming. In practical terms, when the closest tower is at or over capacity, it may appear as though the user has five-bars on their phone, but the capacity is fully subscribed. Adding a small cell closer to handsets helps consumers use their phones without having to compete for space. This is called “network densification,” and it may represent the least impactful means of keeping reception and service at a high level.

Key benefits to using existing poles in the public right-of-way include:

  • Pole owners receive additional rental revenue.
  • Residents and businesses — including the pole owners — have improved wireless coverage.
  • Cities are happy that existing infrastructure is being used.
  • Public safety improves because each small cell provides advanced e911 locations, making it easier to find someone in an emergency.

Wireless attachers know that there will always be challenges, but anything a pole owner can do to allow for efficient and timely access to existing poles benefits everyone. Pole-owner partnerships are essential because without them, large parts of our country will be stuck in a 3G world as the rest move onto 5G and beyond.

About the Author

Natasha Ernst, Lightower Fiber Networks
Natasha Ernst has over 10-years experience working on the deployment of wired and wireless telecommunications attachments in the public right of way on utility poles. Natasha is responsible for obtaining all necessary underlying authorizations as the head of the access legal group for Lightower Fiber Networks, Inc.