Coming to a pole near you: Morris Township passes ‘small cell’ ordinance

A Morris Township resident asks questions about 5G transmission cells at Township Committee meeting, June 20, 2018. Photo by Marion Filler
A Morris Township resident asks questions about 5G transmission cells at Township Committee meeting, June 20, 2018. Photo by Marion Filler
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By Marion Filler

We all love our cell phones. But what about cell phone towers? Transmitters on telephone poles? Equipment “cabinets” the size of small refrigerators? Do we love them too?

Not so much.

A new, faster level of wireless technology called 5G is coming to Morris County, probably by 2020. And it will require all of the above.

On Wednesday night the Morris Township Committee approved a measure restricting where this transmission gear can go.

Making the first move was important; otherwise, telecom companies might press forward and install their equipment, leaving lawsuits as the municipality’s only recourse, Mayor Peter Mancuso said prior to the vote.

“There are 566 Townships in the state of New Jersey and very few have enacted ordinances such as this. I think to protect our residents and citizens, stay ahead of the curve and not to have these pre-emptive situations, I think our choices are very, very, limited,” the mayor said.

The concept behind 5G, “small cell technology,” essentially is a supplement to existing towers. It entails a host of equipment — antennas, power supplies, electric meters, switches, cabling and boxes strapped to the sides of existing poles, both wood and metal.

Example of a 5G light pole, courtesy of Morris Township Engineer James Slate.
Example of a 5G light pole, courtesy of Morris Township Engineer James Slate.

If unable to access a pole, the electronics can be contained in 55 x 23 inch metal cabinets on the ground. In some cases, new poles may have to be erected. Because the 5G signal is limited in range as compared to one emanating from a giant tower, the cells or nodes need to be within 1,000 feet of each other.

Verizon already has approached the Township for permission to begin the process, and other carriers are lining up.

Edward Purcell, an attorney advising the Township, asserted it’s necessary to have an ordinance in place as soon as possible.

“Taking no action is not an option, because if you sit on an application it is in violation of the Federal Communications Act,” Purcell said. “The best thing for the Township is to proceed with order and structure, I repeat order and structure, in the way it responds to these applications.”

Ordinance 09-18 follows the recommendations of Township Engineer James Slate and Assistant Engineers David Hansen and Bernard Senger: Ground-level wireless cabinets and new poles are prohibited in residential zones, and are a conditional use in non-residential zones.

However, if they are deemed necessary for the seamless coverage dictated by the Federal Communications Commission, zoning board approval is necessary.

“It’s our view that these restrictions can effectively prohibit the service in residential zones,” said Stephen Offen, attorney for Verizon Wireless.

“Big cell towers cover large areas, but 5G is designed to provide coverage by filling gaps. This is all part of the rollout of 5G. The FCC has required the carriers to devise a plan to get this technology out to the entire country.”

“With all due respect,” Offen continued, “we all know the zoning-planning process in New Jersey can go on and on and on. That is exactly what the federal government wants to avoid. We want to streamline the procedure.”

Frances Boschulte, a radio frequency engineer from PierCon Solutions in Lincoln Park, testified for Verizon about “two small network nodes” proposed for Spring Valley Road near Van Beuren Road.

“The challenge is that Verizon has macro facilities that surround the area, one is northwest on Rt. 287 and one to the East at Convent Station,” but dense foliage and terrain hinder service there, the engineer said, contending that without the proposed improvements, residents in the area will be unable to receive continuous and reliable service.

A flurry of questions and comments from residents followed. Several people urged the Township to take more time to evaluate the ordinance.

Resident Tom Spark inquired about the logistics and appearance of the hardware.

“Where is this box on the ground in relationship to the pole?” he wanted to know. When told that Jersey Central Power & Light requires cabinets be at least eight feet from their poles, he observed that “it’s already taking up more geography.”

Spark asked about the spacing necessary for 5G to be effective. Purcell said the ordinance specifies there must be at least 150 feet between each small cell installation.

Another person questioned the unknown effects of greatly amplified electro-magnetic fields from 5G cells. No studies have been conducted since 1996, and none are in the pipeline.

Most disturbing to residents was Purcell’s confirmation that federal law allows the FCC to preempt the ability of local governments to protect citizens from possible health threats from cell towers of any kind.

Additionally, carriers that are denied a variance to install small cell gear into residential areas can sue because curtailed service is in violation of the FCC mandate. In such cases, the Township would have to comply, according to testimony. 

With multiple carriers all promoting their own networks, one resident asked how many poles and cabinets the Township might end up with.

Township Administrator Timothy Quinn estimated there are 6,000 poles in the district — but the final number of 5G installations is anyone’s guess.

Offen, the Verizon representative, ended the discussion by saying the best approach is to work within the Township’s framework to the extent possible. These installations “are designed to meet a capacity issue,” he said. “This is not about voice transmission, this is about transmission of data.”

Capacity needs are increasing daily, he said, and “these devices are designed to meet that need.”

The Township Committee adopted the ordinance with two minor amendments, changing the cabinet size to 28 cubic feet and extending the license of applicants from 10 years to 15.

The lone abstention was Committeeman Bruce Sisler, who expressed a desire to study more variables.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Edward Purcell as representing Verizon. He is an adviser to the Township.

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1 COMMENT

  1. No idea why my prior comments were blocked, but I’ll try again. 🙂

    This, as I suspected, was a mess which will come back to bite the town in the butt. Everyone refers to “5G” as if it’s a concrete, well-defined thing. It’s not. It is a marketing term, much like 4G. The fact that Verizon and other carriers are not even telling anyone what variant this is should make it impossible to vote, but there we go. Not only voting for it, but tacking an additional 5 years on to it. Verizon’s proposal sound like they want to fill known coverage holes with standard LTE-based microcells. That’s one thing. Millimeter-wave “5G” is only line of sight, so if they’re given the OK for this, then the pole count goes way up if they want to blanket the town.

    Of note, “5G” as it’s marketed is mostly about dense urban settings and/or replacing wired broadband. We are not dense urban here, and for wired, we are better off than most of the country – we have fiber via FiOS which is always going to be superior to any wireless service, and Altice/Cablevision is actively building out fiber to the home throughout NJ. We are exactly NOT the target for one marketed flavor of “5G”, so why are we signing a “blank check” to drop very not-5G-looking giant equipment all over town?

    But voting without knowing what the carriers will do and bowing to Verizon without question is a bad look for politicians of either party – Democrats should be questioning whether we should subsidize these entities with our property values for free and Republicans should be incensed that an outside entity walks in and tells the town we have no right to challenge our “town’s rights”.

    Also what was the final vote? All I see is that Sisler abstained.

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