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Wireless spreading, pole by pole

Email|Print| Text size + By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / February 28, 2008

The nodes are coming. Or as Robert Van Campen, president of the Everett Board of Aldermen, describes them, "gym lockers hanging on the side of utility poles."

With a seemingly insatiable public demand for more wireless phone coverage, Everett, Malden, and Chelsea are on a growing list of suburban communities targeted by a California-based telecommunications company that is building a new type of wireless network.

NextG Networks has sought permits in all three cities to install its digital antenna system, or DAS, on existing utility poles. The setup, called a node, includes fiber-optic cables and a small antenna that is attached near the top of a pole, and an amplifier that is connected about 12 feet above ground level. The amplifiers are in metal boxes that are about 3 feet long, sparking the comparison with gym lockers.

"I don't appreciate having something like that hanging on poles in the city, 10 or 12 feet above the ground," Van Campen said.

Neither, apparently, did officials in Malden and Chelsea. But after learning from their city solicitors that federal telecommunications law essentially grants carriers the right of way and leaves little room for communities to reject the requests, Malden last week approved NextG's petition for installations on nine poles, and Chelsea this week is finalizing a request for 10.

But Everett's Board of Aldermen rejected NextG's request in November to install about 20 nodes around the city, prompting the company to file a federal lawsuit on Friday calling Everett's denial "particularly egregious" and "completely subjective," and requesting a court order allowing the installations to proceed.

NextG's push into suburbia comes at a time when many communities are struggling with the "double-pole" phenomenon.

Utility companies often bolt a new pole next to a rotting one for months as they wait for other service providers - telephone, cable, street-light, fiber-optic - to remove their wires before the decaying pole is taken down.

"We are at the mercy of the utility companies that own the poles. So when NextG came before us, it compounded the problem," said Gary Christenson, Malden's City Council president. "Here we are, dealing with the issue of double poles, and it conjured up all the negativity around it. It wasn't so much what NextG was trying to do."

NextG is trying to install roughly 400 nodes in about 10 communities around Boston, according to Robert Delsman, NextG's vice president of government regulations and regulatory affairs.

Delsman declined to list all of the communities but said Brookline is one of them.

"We have another competitor in the Boston area called ExteNet, and they are doing a system in Brookline," Delsman said. "We have an application pending with Brookline . . . that is covering a larger area."

NextG, ExteNet, and others are vying to build digital antenna systems across the country for wireless companies that need to improve their coverage or expand their capacity. Fueling the stampede are consumers seeking more features with their cellphones - text messages, e-mail, downloaded music, and video.

As wireless companies face neighborhood resistance to cell towers, digital antenna systems are springing up as a more palatable solution.

"In the Northeast, where there are densely populated residential areas and where local zoning regulations make the siting of traditional wireless structures unfeasible, oftentimes carriers find that DAS is an appropriate way to provide coverage within a specific area," said Jackie McCarthy, director of government relations for PCIA -The Wireless Infrastructure Association. "DAS becomes the only way to deploy signals in certain areas."

After hashing out the issue for several months in Malden, the City Council added five conditions to the agreement it reached with NextG last week.

Those conditions called for the company to install "the smallest available and least obtrusive" nodes on utility poles and to agree to remove all of its equipment within 30 days when a utility pole is being replaced. Everett officials say they rejected NextG's request last fall because the company provided fuzzy answers to many questions, including whether there would be any health impacts from radio frequencies emitted from the equipment. The firm provided the city with a report, included in its federal lawsuit, that indicated its equipment would emit less than 1 percent of federal permissible levels.

In interviews last Thursday, the day before the lawsuit was filed, Everett officials said they were leaning toward approving NextG's request, largely because the city solicitor advised them that Everett didn't have much chance of winning. Yet they said they would withhold their decision until after a scheduled March 10 public hearing to gather further feedback.

Then on Monday night, the city's Board of Aldermen met behind closed doors for 40 minutes to discuss the new lawsuit. After that executive session, the president announced that the city would seal its NextG records until the litigation is concluded, and that the planned March 10 hearing, at 7 p.m. in City Hall, would proceed. He declined to answer further questions, citing the pending litigation.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.

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