San Diego is proposing aggressive new cell antenna regulations, including special protections for historic areas, as the wireless industry prepares to roll out advanced 5G technology.

Community leaders are praising the city for striving to limit visual impacts and keeping the new antennas as unobtrusive as possible, despite the industry needing significantly more antennas to support the new 5G network.

Local wireless industry leaders are divided on city planning officials’ recommendations, which are scheduled for approval Tuesday by the City Council.

Some say they can live with the city’s proposed regulations, which comply with federal restrictions on the city's regulatory powers enacted early this year. Others say the city is acting too quickly and illegally discriminating against the industry.

The wireless industry has touted advanced 5G technology, which is expected to be unveiled nationwide next year, for its ability to boost data capacity, speed up performance and lengthen device battery life.

The shift to 5G requires the industry to essentially abandon old-fashioned cell towers in favor of "small cells," where a group of smaller antennas with more limited ranges transmits the same cell data as one large antenna would.

The small cell antennas, about the size of a pizza box, will be placed a block or so apart along streets and at public facilities. Typically they will be mounted on telephone poles and street lights.

Some small antennas are already operating in San Diego to support less-advanced 4G technology, but the shift to 5G will require many more of the antennas throughout the city.

The new federal law requires San Diego and other cities to loosen some rules, speed up approval times and lower fees.

But the cities keep their rights to regulate the visual impact and safety of cell towers, if it’s in a “reasonable” way and if the city’s criteria are objective and published in advance.

Karen Lynch, a planning official spearheading the new policy, said San Diego is taking advantage of that opportunity to try to protect neighborhood aesthetics, especially in historic areas and areas that could be declared historic in the future.

The goal was to create specific, detailed and clearly laid out criteria that seek to avoid unsightly antenna installations. Radials and mounting brackets must be concealed, antennas must be painted to match poles and companies must strive to avoid visual clutter.

Lynch said she believes San Diego would have the highest standards for cell antennas in the nation if the council approves the new policy. She also said San Diego’s regulations are the best among large U.S. cities at concealing “macro” antenna installations, and would be the best she has seen so far at limiting the visual impacts of small-cell antennas.

The new city policy would also prohibit antennas from diminishing the community character of historic areas. New installations would have to meet historic criteria set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and neighborhoods could appeal antennas approved by staff to the Planning Commission.

Officials from Verizon Wireless, which is negotiating a special cell antenna agreement with city planning staff, said this week that they support the city’s proposed policy.

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