Despite Local Government Concerns, Small-Cell Towers Will Soon Be Headed to a Neighborhood Near You

Oct 3, 2019

Credit AP Photo / Rogelio V. Solis

New wireless technology is being installed on utility poles across Virginia. It’s thanks to a new law that’s opened the floodgates for small-cell technology.

Back in 2018, the General Assembly was considering a bill that would allow Verizon and AT&T to sidestep local zoning boards and architectural review commissions.

Supporters said the idea was to create one statewide structure for the companies to negotiate, and many rural lawmakers liked the idea of expanding wireless access across Southwest Virginia. But state Senator Chap Petersen of Fairfax City disagreed. 

“This is not about rural service," Petersen said. "This is about going to localities that have a target rich environment where people want to put better cell service because that’s where the customers are and basically want to override local zoning authority.”

Now dense metropolitan areas in Virginia are seeing a flood of applications. This year alone, Alexandria has already received more than 40 applications for small-cell technology to be installed in the public right of way, including the Old Town historic district.

Several City Council members say they’re concerned the General Assembly has taken away their zoning authority, although Mayor Justin Wilson says building the network is worth it. 

“I hear everyone on being frustrated with this process and frustrated with the state process and the federal process here," says Wilson. "But golly we should want to be up to date on technology.”

The first small-cell installations in Alexandria will happen on wooden utility poles, although the companies eventually want to eventually install them on traffic lights and buildings. Supporters say having a high-speed wireless network with the latest technology is worth any kind of aesthetic problems.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.