AT&T seeks use of county poles for faster data speeds

A major telecommunications company wants to rent space on Hawaii County utility poles to attach equipment increasing wireless data speeds and reducing dead zones, but community reception has been less than enthusiastic.

The Hawaii County Council last week put the brakes on a fast-tracked resolution to allow AT&T to add the so-called “small cell” technology to four poles in Kona and two in Hilo. The company proposes 11 4G LTE sites for county poles, some of which are owned by Hawaiian Electric Co. or are in state rights of way.

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The locations for the poles are unknown, except for one on Banyan Drive in Hilo and one on Holoholo Street in Kalaoa.

The system typically includes an antenna at the top of the pole and a box that contains a radio and other equipment farther down.

Some council members questioned why the small cell equipment is to be placed on poles in more urban areas rather than in rural areas of the island, where wireless coverage is more sparse. Elizabeth Songvilay, an AT&T Hawaii lobbyist, said late Thursday that the towers work best for rural areas, and using small cells in more urban ones takes pressure off the towers and allows them to send their signals farther. She said the locations are based on customer demand.

“The idea for small cells is to supplement the network,” Songvilay said. “Our intention here is really to improve coverage on the Big Island. It takes both small cells and big towers.”

The delaying action followed concerns from council members that a master agreement would allow the company to upgrade from its current plans for 4G LTE to 5G, which many of their constituents oppose.

“I feel a level of caution in the need to do a little more due diligence and research so we are more mindful of what we’re setting ourselves up for and most predominately because of the nature of 5G and many of the concerns in our community, whether they are founded or not, 5G technology is raising a lot of red flags in a lot of communities,” said Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas.

She acknowledged the need for better access to the internet and faster speeds, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when students and businesses are doing so much more online.

“It just seems like another can of worms and it behooves us to do a little more research about it,” Villegas said.

Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder agreed.

“I’m a little surprised by this resolution. I think it looks benign, but I don’t think it is benign,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “Although I’m sure these technologies will be deemed safe, a large part of the world is saying they’re not safe as we step into new technologies that we really haven’t played with before. And a lot of things that we thought safe in the past have turned out to not be safe.”

The county probably has very little recourse, said Deputy Corporation Counsel Danny Patel. Small cell equipment is regulated by the Federal Communication Commission and state laws, he said, and failing to approve the resolution could lead to lawsuits.

“Federal regulations and state legislation is clear,” Patel said, “our hands are bound by that.”

The county can require a reasonable fee, he said, and can also require the company test the equipment to ensure it’s up to federal guidelines, he said.

The fee being charged by the county is a $250 application fee for each site, with a $250 annual renewal, said Public Works Director David Yamamoto.

“The county cannot prohibit the installation of these items unless there’s a legitimate or arguable reason,” Yamamoto said.

The FCC, in its informational materials, states, “radio frequency emissions from antennas used for cellular and PCS transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits.” Safety limits are determined by experts and federal agencies responsible for health and safety, the FCC said.

The measure, Resolution 631, was requested by the administration and brought directly to the County Council on June 3, without going first to a committee. Council members unanimously postponed it to a future meeting at the chairman’s discretion.

Council members said they’re concerned that approving the master agreement would mean all future changes, such as to 5G, would be handled strictly at the administrative level, with no council or public notice or input.

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Council Chairman Aaron Chung said Thursday that he’ll put the resolution on a future agenda only if the administration or a council member requests it.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.