Preserving History and a Technology-Driven Future in Boston

October 3, 2018 - (4 min read)

This is the first in a series of case studies tracking how cities are handling small cell wireless infrastructure deployment on their streets. To learn more about this technology and how your city can prepare for it, read NLC’s municipal action guide on small cell wireless infrastructure.

The city of Boston faced a unique challenge when it set out to upgrade the city’s wireless networks: its history. The city contains narrow, twisting streets with little sidewalk space, carefully-maintained historic districts, and a wide variety of decorative poles and streetlights — including some gas lamps. This adds up to crowded rights-of-way with sensitive aesthetic needs. However, a city known for its universities and tech industries needed to be a competitive leader on broadband infrastructure to retain and attract residents and businesses.

In 2014, Boston began an initiative to improve broadband in the city. Boston focused its broadband planning around a “three-legged stool” concept: broadband access, affordability and adoption. The city recognized that this meant enhancing both local fiber and wireless networks, and began working with city departments and broadband providers to develop a process for infrastructure deployment that balanced the city’s historic and planning needs with the need for broadband providers to build quickly and efficiently.

To address the growing demand for small cell wireless infrastructure, the city used widely-available online tools to create an online application and review process. This has reduced the average turnaround time for small cell site application reviews to roughly two weeks. Boston has also managed to stem potential overflows of applications by placing reasonable obligations on providers eager to file multiple applications at once: After a permit for a new wireless facility is approved, the provider must build its site within 60 days.

The process hasn’t been entirely smooth; the city has had to dramatically increase its communication and collaboration with wireless providers and tower companies to tackle tough challenges on narrow residential sidewalks or historic areas. In many neighborhoods, houses are right on top of the street, and any wireless infrastructure is likely to be right outside the windows of these homes. Boston has had to work very closely with neighbors and wireless providers to create innovative pole designs that take up less sidewalk space, or negotiate a different pole location on a nearby arterial street with fewer residences and more room to site equipment.

“Communication has become the key,” said Mike Lynch, who leads Boston broadband and cable office. “We have conversations about this daily…the city is getting kind of inconvenienced, but we recognize that this is the next big wave in broadband deployment.”

How Boston Does It

  • Use GIS resources to make site selection and management more efficient
    Boston created two mapping tools using Google Maps and Esri to allow providers to view the available pole locations in the city and easily select the poles they would like to replace. City staff can then use that GIS data to quickly determine whether the proposed replacement fits with that location, the provider already has another pole in the immediate vicinity and the proposed replacement meets the safety needs of that street, speeding up the process for both providers and city staff. These mapping tools also allow the city to easily identify pole owners who need to be contacted for maintenance needs, such as graffiti cleanup or light bulb replacement.
  • Create a library of approved design options for street furniture with providers
    Boston has nearly twenty different kinds of poles on its city streets, including three styles of gas lamps that cannot accommodate telecommunications equipment safely. The city has worked with providers to create a library of approved pole designs that meet the safety and aesthetic needs of city neighborhoods, so that providers can quickly choose an option that meets their requirements and will be approved by city planners.
  • Proactively work with neighborhood groups
    Boston’s civic and neighborhood associations are extremely active. There are numerous officially recognized architectural and historic commissions in the city, as well as active neighborhood design committees. The city works with these neighborhood groups to proactively keep them updated on the city’s deployment of new infrastructure and address their concerns, whether about safety, aesthetics or nuisance concerns.


Angelina_ready About the Author: Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.




nicole_depuis_ready About the Authors: Nicole DuPuis is the principal associate for urban innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.