Santa Monica City Hall (File photo)

With residents in the throes of Pokemon Go fever, it seems an opportune time for the Santa Monica City Council to address telecom infrastructure and City Hall spent time this week making sure it’s easier to see a Pikachu than the wires carrying the digital information he’s based on.

The council approved new rules for installation and modification of telecommunications equipment on July 12 that will preserve the city’s ability to hide equipment while allowing for expansion to meet growing demands.

Santa Monica’s updates were prompted by recent federal and state action. The Federal Communications Commission recently refined rules clarifying “substantial” modifications to existing antennas. Under the new rules, an existing installation could increase in height by up to 10 feet and six feet in each direction without qualifying as a “substantial” modification.

Most of Santa Monica’s antennas are installed on poles within the public right of way such as utility lines or streetlights.

In addition, new state rules took effect this year that mandate approval for modification applications if they are within the “substantial” threshold.

However, the FCC’s rules contain a clause that defines any modification as substantial if it violates local concealment laws designed to minimize the visual impact of telecommunications equipment.

Engineering technician Paul McClaren said the Council’s actions Tuesday redefined Santa Monica’s concealment rules to specifically allow the city to maintain control over possible expansion.

Under the newly revised local rules, telecommunications equipment is required to be minimal in size (no larger than three cubic feet or eight cubic feet depending on type), use screens that match surrounding colors, hide wires inside existing infrastructure, be located among other similar kinds of infrastructure, utilize existing street/traffic/utility poles and be located in appropriate locations such as alleys and at the end of property lines.

With the new rules, a carrier makes an application to the planning department. That application can be approved or denied with an administrative action and anyone can appeal that decision to the City Council.

“If we were not defining concealment elements, once installations are in, we have no control of how big they can get if they stayed under that substantial change,” he said

McClaren said the concept of a 10- by 12-foot expansion to antennas atop streetlights was unacceptable to the city.

“In everybody’s eyes that’s a ridiculous size to allow them,” he said.

The new rules will help regulate cellphone technology, but McClaren said there’s a pressing need for more capacity.

According to figures presented Tuesday night, smartphone subscriptions have tripled in the last five years, creating a huge spike in the demand for data. The staff presentation said data usage will increase from about 1 gigabyte per month to over 6 in the coming five years. In addition to usage by human customers an increasing number of machines, such as smart refrigerators, are accessing data to communicate with other machines or their owners.

The quantity of data used is causing reception problems for customers. McClaren said there’s plenty of coverage for cellphones but there’s a bottleneck in transferring the wireless data to the wired connections that form the backbone of the Internet. The industry is working to address the problem by installing additional small cell sites, more than 100 per carrier in the city, that can quickly transfer cell phone data to the City’s established fiber optic cable network. Doing so will clear the digital air and increase the quality of actually cellular reception.

The new regulations are aimed at cellular equipment, not WiFi. Both Time Warner Cable and the City of Santa Monica offer WiFi connectivity in the city but the kind of equipment specifically covered by Tuesday’s decision will improve the use of data on cellular networks and isn’t directly connected to expanding WiFi service.

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...