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Mini-cell Towers and Streetscape Preservation

By: Tom Davis Category: Misc Urban Infrastructure, Recent Posts, Underground Utilities

Downtown Houston was in the midst of a rebirth in 1999 to 2006 with many new blocks of well-designed streetscapes. By 2001, the telecom industry was booming and installing conduit and fiber optic cables with wild abandon and little regard for the streets. So, when that industry began talking in 2015 about needing to place new conduit runs to “mini-cell towers” those of us charged with increasing and protecting the public’s investments were cautious. 

This post will share the situation that evolved in Houston Texas related to the division of responsibilities in the ROWs and how we implemented a new ordinance to provide regulation of the installation and use of mini-cell towers in the ROW.  Please keep in mind as you read this that the City did not want to excessively regulate the improvements and worked to find the balance with the requirement to protect the public investment in streetscape improvements.

Directional boring under old live oaks during off-peak traffic

Background:  In 2016, various telecom providers and their contractors descended on Houston for a mad race to get ready for Super Bowl 51. Several had already been talking about their desire to install mini-cell towers in high demand areas. Then, with SB51 looming and hundreds of thousands of visitors in town with their smartphones, everyone agreed the bandwidth demand would be tremendous. Neither the City nor the industry wanted reports of smartphone failures on the national media during the month of super bowl mania.

There were temporary expansions of the cellular systems by strategic placement of COWs.  Yup, you read that right, COWs. See the post here about COWs and NOWs.

In many areas of Houston, the responsibility for public infrastructure maintenance is shared between the City and various management districts (MD).  [MDs are known in many cities as business improvement districts or BIDs]. In Houston, all improvements in the ROW above the standard pavement, sidewalk, trees and underground public utilities must be paid for and maintained by the MD or the adjacent property owner. The City provides the same level of improvements and services to all areas.

The issue with a third party placing conduit underground and building foundations is restoring the sidewalk, landscaping and its irrigation, art, benches, wayfinding signage, etc.

How does an MD, with no rights of approval or rejection, influence the repairs that will be necessary once the foundations, poles and cable/conduit are in place?

Mini-Cell Tower on a drill-pier foundation

The new ordinance provided for the telecoms to submit to the MDs what they plan and required them to get an acknowledgment letter to show the City. [Note; the letter is an acknowledgment and not an approval.]  The submission, and hopefully conversation about the proposed installation provides an opportunity to create, at least to some extent, a working relationship between the two parties. That “relationship”, no matter how tentative, provides the opportunity for the MD to apply pressure to have the work properly undertaken and the streetscape repaired. That arrangement did not create a lot of confidence in the skeptics but it seemed to work.

All the responsibility to protect the public’s investment does not lie with the MDs. The installers bear the full responsibility for restoring the streets and sidewalks.  The City has the only “club” and does not get a “pass” here as City staff must support the MD’s and bring the supposedly offending telecom and their installer to the table. We did see on occasion the MD’s demands were unreasonable and the City had to side with the telecom. The City staff must find a fair solution–i.e. be a good mediator.

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