Across the country and here in Utah, the need for faster mobile and data service increases by the day. Both have become the primary way we communicate and get information.
The growing service demands also place an extra burden on traditional cellular service towers that has become harder to meet, Technology’s solution to the problem is the “small cell,” a network of compact data transmission stations that boost service on existing networks and later will also facilitate the next generation of service known as 5G.
Small cell technology installations are already popping up across Salt Lake City and raising plenty of questions, so here’s what you need to know:
Frequently Asked Questions
What does a small cell do?
A small cell is a low-powered radio access station, sometimes called a node, that transmits data in a smaller geographical range than a regular cell tower. That might sound backwards — bigger is better, right? — but the idea is to place groups of small cells across a community, increasing the overall capacity and quality of wireless service. It’s the strength in numbers theory. Small cells also transmit signals in high demand areas where the population density is high, near gathering places for large crowds, like a stadium or arena, and in Salt Lake City’s downtown, where tall buildings can impede service. Part of the small cell’s job is also to support the next generation of cellular technology, commonly known as 5G.
Why does Salt Lake City need small cells?
Small cell facilities will help manage the demand for wireless services as the city grows and technology evolves. By design they improve access to wireless services in places where coverage is low or spotty and can also improve the quality of service inside buildings or homes, where most mobile traffic occurs. Small cell nodes are also more environmentally friendly because they are compact and need less energy to operate.
What does a small cell look like?
Small cell nodes are, in fact, pretty small — about the size of a pizza box or a backpack. The nodes are affixed with an antenna that connects to a power source and then to a fiber optic network. Most frequently small cells are placed on top of poles — like streetlights or traffic signals — but they can also be lower to the ground attached to utility-type boxes or other structures. If there’s not easy spot to place a small cell, freestanding poles, commonly called monopoles can be installed. Currently in Salt Lake City, most small cell systems will be installed on monopoles.
How did small cells get to Salt Lake City?
Overall, small cell facilities are regulated by the federal government. In 2018, the Utah Legislature paved the way for small cell technology by passing the Small Cell Wireless Facilities Deployment Act. (https://bit.ly/3gxBnXl). The law allows for small cell infrastructure to go up in cities across the state and set the basic rules for where they can go. That takes most of the decision-making power away from communities, including Salt Lake City, but small cell installations still have to be permitted and meet local design standards.
What design standards has Salt Lake City set?
Salt Lake City has created a set of design standards to ensure that small cell technology fits into — or at least don’t completely disrupt — the aesthetics and character of our neighborhoods. City engineers are working closely with each cell carrier or infrastructure company on their installation plan details before issuing a permit. Here again, however, the state law hampers some of the city’s ability to hold cell carriers to city design standards. You can read about Small Cell Infrastructure Design Standards:
Where will small cell nodes be located in Salt Lake City?
Small cells will eventually be installed across the City, either on private property of in public rights of way, which are areas like streets, highways, pathways or other places that can be crossed or used by the public. If a cellular carrier determines the best place to mount a small cell node is on private property, they have to follow City zoning regulations and enter into an agreement with the property owner. Small cells can also be installed in Salt Lake City’s historic districts and next to historic landmarks. There are additional design standards to be met in those areas.
As of July 2020, 117 monopoles have been permitted in Salt Lake City and 99 have completed construction.
How will I know small cells are coming to my neighborhood?
The simple answer is: You might not. Neither state law nor city ordinances require advance notice to property owners of planned utility installations. This applies to all utilities, not just small cell nodes.
What are the rules for cellular carriers?
Wireless carriers who want to place small cells in Salt Lake City must first obtain some city approvals. The first is a master licensing agreement with the city, which set terms and conditions for protecting the interests of residents. Second, they’ll need a right-of-way permit before any equipment can be installed. In places where monopoles are installed, additional city agreements are also required. Cellular carriers are also required to maintain small cell equipment and nodes must be posted with information about the carrier and a 24-hour company contact number.
The permitted wireless carrier companies in Salt Lake City include AT&T, Crown Castle, ExteNet and Verizon.
Can I appeal a small cell node permit?
To review a small cell installation permit you can contact Permit Engineer Scott Weiler at 801-535-6159. You can also call City Engineer Matt Cassel at 801-535-6140.
Will small cells affect my health?
So far, the majority of scientific study has not linked exposure to radio frequency emission from cell phones to specific health risks. The Federal Communications Commission, in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, sets limits for the radio frequencies emitted by cellular data equipment, including small cells.
The FCC and the American Cancer Society and World Health Organization websites each have information about radio frequency safety that can be found here:
What If I have questions?
For more specific questions about small cells installations, you can call Salt Lake City’s Engineering Division at 801-535-7961. There’s also an FAQ with more details here:
Federal, State, and Other Contacts
If you have already spoken with Salt Lake City and your concern is related to State or Federal regulations, below are the representatives you can contact.
Representative Chris Stewart
2242 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515
Senator Mike Lee
361A Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Senator Mitt Romney
124 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Salt Lake County Health Department
Report a Problem
Utah State Health Department
Utah Department of Health
P.O Box 141010
Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-1010
Federal Communications Commission
Report a Problem
445 12th Street S.W. Washington, D.C. 20554