San Francisco Can Reject 5G Equipment It Views as Too Ugly

(Bloomberg) -- San Francisco can reject 5G wireless equipment that it views as detracting from the city’s beauty, a setback for wireless carriers which may now have to remap new networks or disguise antennas as palm fronds or building cornices.

California’s highest court disagreed Thursday with T-Mobile US Inc. and other companies which argued San Francisco overreached in asserting its authority to regulate wireless telephone equipment on aesthetic grounds.

T-Mobile sued San Francisco to try to block a law allowing limits on intrusive equipment on utility poles and other locations that will diminish the aesthetics. The 2011 ordinance was passed amid growing demand by the wireless industry to install such equipment. The law cited San Francisco’s beauty as critical to its tourist industry and a reason people and businesses want to locate there.

“The city has inherent local police power to determine the appropriate uses of land within its jurisdiction,” the California Supreme Court ruled. “That power includes the authority to establish aesthetic conditions for land use.”

The ruling could open a new set of challenges for wireless carriers that are rushing to build 5G networks and hook customers on advanced services. Verizon Communications Inc. this month became the first U.S. carrier to offer fifth-generation mobile-phone service in parts of Minneapolis and Chicago, an initial launch in a 30-city goal.

Given the relatively short, fragile nature of high-frequency 5G signals, carriers have to configure networks differently. They’re shifting more of the network hardware from tall towers that are scattered to spread signals over broad areas, to smaller, more clustered sites like rooftops and street poles.

With the need to add millions more antennas, the wireless industry has been pushing for a more streamlined state and municipal approval process. Addressing aesthetic concerns could add a new layer of costs and delays in that effort.

T-Mobile declined to comment on the ruling.

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the city was aiming for “common sense” regulation that doesn’t prohibit equipment from being installed, but does require it to be as “unobtrusive as possible.”

“Private companies don’t have free rein when it comes to using a public resource,” he said in a statement. “San Francisco’s approach strikes the right balance. It allows for innovation and improved technology while ensuring that unsightly poles and equipment don’t mar public views of the Painted Ladies or the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Wireless carriers have fought this battle from the industry’s beginning. Two decades ago, when opponents called large cell towers eyesores, phone companies tried to conceal antennas in church steeples and camouflage them to look like trees. At least with smaller antennas, carriers can disguise equipment to look like building bricks or telephone poles.

The case is T-Mobile West LLC v. City and County of San Francisco, S238001, California Supreme Court.

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