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Illinois Economy

AT&T Pushing 'Small Cells,' But Some Cities Object

small cell technology
Examples of "small cell" technology can be seen on streetlight posts in these photos provided by AT&T.

AT&T and other mobile phone providers are pushing legislation they say will ease congestion on their networks. But some towns and cities across Illinois are worried it’s really a power grab.

Wireless companies say the future requires going beyond large towers — adding “small cells” targeted to areas that need better connectivity, like where the terrain or buildings can interfere with signals.

AT&T spokesman Eric Robinson says the rise of video on phones is crowding networks.

“The idea with small cells is to relieve capacity there, so that people have a better, faster wireless experience,” Robinson says.

The legislation would allow companies to put up micro towers on light poles and elsewhere in public rights-of-way.

But some cities are objecting. They worry the devices could undo beautification efforts. Others, like Springfield say caps on fees for the cells would be a substantial hit to the budget.

“You know, our customers own our power poles, our street lights, our infrastructure," says Doug Brown, the chief utility engineer with Springfield’s City, Water, Light and Power. "We want to be fairly compensated for the use of our infrastructure, our right-of-ways."

Brown says CWLP currently gets $250 a month for each power pole with a small cell. The legislation would slash that fee, capping it at $200 a year.

The House and Senate have both passed the legislation, but Senate President John Cullerton is using a parliamentary maneuver to stall the bill. He says he intends to address the cities’ concerns.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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