Equipment boxes, like this one mounted on a utility pole on West Avenue in Ocean City, are part of the small cell wireless communications systems coming to Sea Isle City.

By Donald Wittkowski

Sea Isle City is exercising some home rule to regulate the communications equipment needed for the next generation of wireless technology to make it as unobtrusive as possible.

Known as “small cell” technology, it is designed to boost the speed and reliability of wireless systems as part of the nationwide buildout of the 5G communications network.

Although Federal Communications Commission rules do not allow towns to bar small cell systems, communities may use local laws to regulate their locations in the public right-of-way, Sea Isle Solicitor Paul Baldini explained.

In Sea Isle’s case, City Council has passed a new ordinance to restrict the wires, antennas, equipment boxes and any other components for the small cell networks to the existing wooden utility poles in town.

“(No) new poles of any material shall be erected within the city by the wireless company,” the ordinance says.

Sea Isle City Solicitor Paul Baldini says towns have the right to regulate small cell systems.

Municipalities across New Jersey are scrambling to approve local laws that regulate small cell systems to prevent ugly antennas, wires and boxes from haphazardly spreading all over their towns. Sea Isle is joining that movement.

“If we didn’t piggyback on this, we would have no say,” Sea Isle Councilman William Kehner said.

Sea Isle does not know at this time how many of the small cell systems will be erected on the wooden utility poles because it has not yet entered into any formal agreements with wireless companies.

Baldini, though, pointed out that Verizon and AT&T are among the wireless providers that are making requests to use the poles. They will have to obtain zoning permits for their small cell systems.

“We wanted the regulations to be clear before we issue the first permit, and this is what this ordinance does,” Baldini said.

Antennas on top of the utility poles are also part of the small cell systems, as seen with this one on West Avenue in Ocean City.

Under New Jersey law, towns will reap no financial benefit from the small cell agreements other than charging a flat $500 application fee, Baldini said. Towns will not be able to charge any taxes or franchise fees.

Small cell networks are designed to boost the speed and capacity of wireless communications by supplementing the existing cellphone towers.

Ultimately, Sea Isle’s residents and visitors will have more data and fewer dropped calls on their cellphones once the new wireless systems are in place. During the bustling summer tourism season, when tens of thousands of vacationers are in town, the existing cell towers are getting overwhelmed, Baldini said.

The relatively small size of the new wireless systems is supposed to make them stealthy and discreet. Under Sea Isle’s new ordinance, they will have to be the same color as the wooden utility poles to help them blend in with the surroundings.

They will consist of cylinder-shaped antennas mounted on the top of utility poles and equipment boxes, roughly 50 inches tall and 30 inches wide, attached closer to the base of the poles, Baldini said.

According to Sea Isle’s new ordinance, the cell systems must be mounted on the poles at least 8 feet off the ground. Antennas may not exceed 4 feet tall. The equipment boxes will not be able to protrude more than 30 inches from the side of the poles.

Baldini noted that Ocean City and Wildwood are among the Cape May County towns that already have small cell systems in place. In those towns, he said the antennas and boxes are attached to utility poles in intervals a few blocks apart.