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The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority last week announced it is ditching a plan to expand WiFi access across all its commuter rail lines after residents expressed concern about the monopoles that would be used to provide connectivity.

According to Boston news station WCVB, locals and lawmakers were worried about the height of the proposed poles. MBTA documents indicate the project would have included a trackside network of 320 poles at a height of 75 feet, supported by nearly 400 miles of fiber buried in underground ducts along the commuter rail right of way. The $140 million cost of the project was to be borne by the contractor, BAI Communications.

The cancellation follows an initial pause of the project for further review after residents spoke out against the project at the MBTA’s late July board meeting.

In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission – which regulates the construction of wireless monopoles – at the end of July, Massachusetts lawmakers collectively asked the Commission to “give due consideration to the proposed project’s impact on our local communities and cultural and historic sites.”

“While we support enhancing the WiFi service of the commuter rail line, we believe that we should also preserve the historical and cultural value of our State,” Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren wrote in a missive signed by all nine of the state’s congressmen and women.

In canceling the project last week, The Boston Globe reported MBTA Interim General Manager Steve Poftak told BAI the board had originally considered a proposal in which the WiFi equipment would be installed on “short” monopoles or existing utility infrastructure near the commuter tracks. Poftak alleged BAI was planning to overbuild in order to lease excess space to other wireless providers.

BAI has the opportunity to submit a new proposal that accounts for the community concerns around pole size, the Globe noted.

Small cell debate

The news out of Massachusetts comes in the context of a broader nationwide debate about the community costs and benefits of new wireless infrastructure, particularly small cells.

Carriers have been pressing the FCC and federal legislators to take action that would ease deployments of small cells as they prepare for deployments of next generation networks. But states, cities, and public interest groups have fought back to avoid what they allege would be a usurpation of local authority.

Some states, like Virginia and Minnesota, have taken action on their own to facilitate small cell deployments. These measures prohibit municipalities from blocking telecom infrastructure construction in public rights-of-way. California is currently considering a similar measure.

Though carriers like T-Mobile have heralded their small cell rollouts as major network boosters, critics allege these measures undercut the ability of communities to look after their own interests and allow the installation of unsightly equipment both near their homes and around town.

But the debate doesn’t appear likely to die down anytime soon.

T-Mobile noted it has contracts in place to build 25,000 small cells over the next several years. During a recent earnings call, Verizon CFO Matt Ellis indicated the carrier has small cell builds in progress in all of the top metro markets in the country and plans to continue those builds as part of Verizon's move to transition from 4G to 5G.

In 2016, IHS Markit noted small cell shipments were up 43 percent. SNS Research projects further growth, as spending on small cells, distributed antenna systems, and centralized RAN increases to hit $15 billion by the end of this year.

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