Today's Telecommunications Infrastructure - A Primer

Joel Swagerman

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

 The explosive growth in the number of cell phone users throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (especially over the past five years) has fuelled the demand for new wireless infrastructure.


People now use their wireless devices for everything: from phone calls to checking email to browsing websites. This need for constant connectivity means that the days of covering entire sections of a city with one tower are long over. Many wireless antennae installations in high-density and high-usage areas now only cover only one corner, or one part of an intersection.


The added stress put on the network means that telecommunication representatives are approaching more and more property managers and owners — at residential, commercial and industrial properties — in order to look for space to host their equipment. This high demand for space, especially rooftops in urban areas, means that building management can leverage previously non-leasable space for a new form of reliable revenue.


Site Acquisition


Network design is a fluid process, whereby designers must quickly react and respond to changes in wireless use, dropped call rates and customer complaints. In urban areas, the connectivity needs might change monthly, or even from day-to-day. Long-term demand can change when construction wraps up on a new condominium tower, or there can be a spike in short-term demand during an influx of people for a special event.  


Once the consumers establish the need to increase capacity, carriers will issue ‘search areas’ to consultants, who then get to work finding an appropriate location for new wireless equipment. These search areas are usually circular, and identify an ideal location for equipment based on network projections. In urban areas, these rings can have a radius of less than 250 metres; while in rural areas, the radius could be anywhere from 300 metres to nearly a kilometre.


Consultants will approach several property owners or managers within the area at the same time in order to assess interest and identify multiple candidates. If a manager or land owner expresses interest, a radio frequency engineer (the network designer), a construction manager and the site acquisition consultant will conduct a site visit. The purpose of the visit is to assess the appropriateness and viability of the location for the proposed equipment or tower.


If the carrier agrees that the recommended location is suitable, then the site acquisition specialist will negotiate an agreement with the property manager or owner. The agreement is normally for a period of up to 20 years. Rates will depend on a myriad of factors, including location, equipment design and construction cost.


Wireless Infrastructure Rules and Regulations


The federal government, under Industry Canada, regulates both telecommunications companies and their infrastructure. As a result, local bylaws (including zoning) are not applicable to any works associated with telecommunications. However, Industry Canada requires the companies to consult with the local municipality before construction.


When a company proposes a new wireless tower, they usually have to undertake a full public consultation process according to either Industry Canada’s or the locally approved protocol. In the case of rooftop equipment, building permits are not necessary, but proponents will often apply for one regardless to ensure that the integrity of the building is maintained.


For residential buildings that house wireless infrastructure, there are likely to be some existing tenants who express concerns regarding the health effects of the equipment. However, Health Canada strictly regulates all installations across the country. It regulates and limits the electro-magnetic radiation and radio frequency (RF) levels emitted from any sort of broadcast undertaking (including FM and AM radio antennas).


Due to the low-powered radios that are used, the majority of cellular installations are around 10,000 times below the maximum emissions allowed under Health Canada’s regulations. For example, a standard FM radio could have a power of 100,000 watts, while a typical cellular radio has a power of 20 watts. A normal cell antenna installation will feature six radios in total, at a total power output of 120 watts.


Toronto Public Health recently reported that despite the massive increase in cellular network equipment, RF levels have remained “relatively stable” in Toronto. Furthermore, during two separate assessments of the city’s RF levels between 2001–2002 and 2008–2009, radio and TV antennas (primarily the CN Tower) were the “major contributors” to Toronto’s RF levels.


Infrastructure Aesthetics


The other major concern that a property manager may hear from tenants or neighbours is about the aesthetics of the installation. Some building rooftops have begun to resemble factory rooftops with various seemingly random protrusions sitting on the roof’s edge, while cellular towers can often look like hydroelectric transmission pylons. The visual appearance of equipment has become a primary concern for many landowners and property managers, and carriers have slowly started to react to mitigate the visual impact of their equipment.


For rooftop equipment, carriers are also moving towards more “stealthy” or shrouded applications. This can be as simple as mounting the antennas flush to the wall and painting them to match the background, or complex strategies including shrouding antennas in fake bushes, extensions of penthouse walls and even inside false smokestacks. This approach has spread to Canada from the United States, where most telecommunications infrastructure is subject to local zoning bylaws. As a result, they have been building false cacti and palm trees to host equipment for more than a decade.


In Muskoka, demand for new wireless capacity was becoming a serious problem, but the area residents’ desire to maintain the natural environment was just as crucial. As a result, carriers installed about a dozen cellular towers disguised as pine trees, featuring simulated bark, branches and needles. While the towers needed to be slightly taller than the natural treeline to meet network requirements, residents have not been complaining about their visual impact. In fact, many residents and visitors are likely completely unaware of their presence.


Future Demand Growth


The demand for wireless infrastructure has swiftly increased over the last decade, and will likely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunication Association says that half of all phone connections in Canada are now wireless. There are more than 28 million wireless phone subscribers in the country, equalling an 81 per cent penetration rate. In fact, Statistics Canada  has found that more than 20 per cent of Canadian households were ‘wireless only’ in 2014, compared to only 1 per cent a decade ago. As almost three quarters of Canadians now have a smartphone, Cisco has forecasted mobile data traffic to grow by 700% from 2014 to 2019.


Compared to countries like the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, which have a penetration rate of 123, 104, and 100 per cents respectively, it is clear that Canada still has room to grow. Property owners and managers can capitalize on this, and should expect to hear inquiries from telecommunication representatives for years to come.


FONTUR provides a full spectrum of wireless network development services to clients throughout Canada, including site acquisition, lease optimization, and securing permits.


Note: This is a revised version of an article that was published in the December 2014 issue of Canadian Property Management Magazine.