More COWs in the field? Temporary cell towers spur city ordinance

Phone providers cite heavy traffic on increase in Renton data usage

Data usage is rising in Renton, but it’s not necessarily because of residents.

Cell phone companies are citing drivers stuck in traffic as the cause of an increase in data use, which cites a the reason the companies need more cell towers. Due to an increase in temporary cell towers, the city of Renton is drafting an ordinance to address aesthetics and permitting of these facilities.

Navigation applications like Google Maps and other common applications for drivers like Spotify are some examples of what’s being used, city Associate Planner Alex Morganroth said, and is increasing the need for data.

To alleviate that data increase, providers are using temporary cell towers, mainly cell-on-wheels (COW). These facilities are known to be used during events such as the solar eclipse, the presidential inauguration, sporting events and music festivals. They also assist with emergency wireless communication in situations such as natural disasters.

The COW facilities started to appear in Renton a couple years ago to alleviate everyday data use.

“The city went from having zero to maybe two or three, and we’ve got a couple more coming in the next couple months,” Morganroth said. “It wasn’t a huge uptick, it was more that we went from nothing, to seeing a lot of interest.”

Providers told city staff their services haven’t been able to keep up with the need while using permanent facilities, causing services to take a long time, so they’ve been applying for temporary facilities. Permanent cell tower facilities are often placed on the roofs of existing buildings or poles.

“We’ve seen an increase in them applying for these temporary facilities as a holdover until they get permanent facilities online,” Morganroth said. “Instead of being used for special events and big crowds of people, they’re now being deployed more as a stop-gap measure.”

Permanent facilities to assist with the long-term data increases of the 2010s have to go through a land-use process, so in the mean time Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile are placing temporary facilities in commercial or industrial areas near the major freeways in Renton.

The city sits between three major state routes, four if counting Maple Valley Highway, and those commuters are driving demand. This is also happening in other cities in the Puget Sound that are in high-traffic areas.

A COW needs to have line of sight to the bigger, permanent cell towers. Morganroth said COWs typically take up 300 to 400 square feet of space in old parking lots, and vacant commercial or industrial lots in the city, generally about a mile off of the freeways. The antennas are usually about 40 feet high.

“They are going where they can get line of sight needs and where they can get an easy lease agreement,” he said.

The city previously had no codes for COWs, and instead would go through a temporary-use permit process to create conditions for the facilities, including where it was located, how long it stood and maintenance of the site.

The new code Community and Economic Development staff are writing for COWs mostly focuses on aesthetic impacts, Morganroth said, including where the facility can sit from the property line and a vegetative screen or fence around the base of the COW. This ordinance will also create a length on permits of 120 days, with a one-time extension of 60 days.

The ordinance also has noise limits for power sources, as COWs have onsite generators. However, Morganroth said COWs in Renton typically connect to a different onsite power source that is much quieter.

This is similar to neighboring city codes on COWs, Morganroth said. During the public hearing process through the Planning Commissioners, they received no public comment from providers or residents, he said.

It’s hard to know how effective this ordinance will be in getting providers to comply, as rules around cell towers are controlled by Federal Communications Commission standards. The Renton Hearing Examiner made a ruling this year, in the case of a COW renewal permit being denied by city staff, in favor of the provider. The provider had argued that the temporary cell tower was needed in case of emergency services, as required by FCC.

“It’s hard to say, the FCC overrides a lot of our stuff. We’re just trying to hopefully give (providers) a little push to at least get (COWs) off the site quicker,” Morganroth said. “We don’t want to have these things on there for two to four years because they can’t get a permanent site.”

It’s also hard to tell where the trend of temporary facilities will go as technology quickly changes. Some are saying cell towers could soon be obsolete with the future of 5G networks. Either way, the city wanted to make sure rules are in the books for these facilities, Morganroth said.