Three Barriers to a Microwave Project
Three Barriers to a Microwave Project
Three Barriers to a Microwave Project
3 minute read

Land acquisition, permitting and regulations are major steps to tackle when building a microwave network. Being prepared to address these time-consuming factors can help avoid surprises down the road.

By Tim Armintrout, PE

There are many steps in building a microwave network. Every step has fairly definitive start and finish dates as well as relationships to other steps on the schedule. A few of the steps are critical and can be serious barriers to the progress of the project. Without getting past these barriers, the planning and deployment of a utility microwave network might come to a halt or require expensive and time-consuming solutions. Be aware of these barriers as you plan for any utility microwave project. 

1. Land Acquisition

Here are some of the factors when considering a particular area for a repeater location: (1) The ground elevation should be higher than the surrounding area; (2) the site should be near an existing roadway for access and accessibility; and (3) the site should be near local distribution power to avoid additional cost.

A well-developed, fenced-in microwave site is typically 100 feet by 100 feet, plus 10 feet outside the fence (Figure 1). 

A well-developed, fenced-in microwave site is typically 100 feet by 100 feet, with 10 feet outside the fence

Typically, a new microwave site occupies about a third of an acre. Many landowners do not want to sell such a small parcel if it is a part of a large field or in a premium location. There are several factors to be considered: 

  • The farmer evaluates the loss of harvest income for that parcel versus selling the parcel. Is an easement required? 
  • How much improvement on the access road will be required? 
  • Is the road capable of handling the heavy truck traffic that would be required to carry a shelter to the site? 

The property might be tied up in estate settlement, causing the opportunity to expire and the search to resume for the next site. The effect of losing a proposed site is so disastrous that normally two or three candidate sites are chosen in a particular area. During design stages, these are evaluated as first, second or third choices.

It is very important to include an option-to-buy clause in the contract, and to set the final purchase price before pounding any survey stakes into the ground, performing any soil borings or removing any trees. The option-to-buy is a fee paid to the landowner for the right to test the site and pass on the purchase if the site fails examinations.

New or undeveloped sites are generally referred to as “greenfield sites,” or raw land, and will require archaeological resources and environmental impact statements. These explorations are normally included in the option-to-buy clause. While a site might be viable from an engineering standpoint, it could be closed to development if there is a significant archaeological find or if it would have a significant environmental impact from the proposed construction site.

2. Permitting

If the utility owns the land, it does not guarantee that the governing body (state, county or city) will approve a building permit. Does the governing body have unreasonable local mandates such as special environmental and cultural mandates or taxes? Federal, state and local politics can severely impact the project schedule if this is a critical site. Site development can be delayed by years or even canceled due to politics.

3. Regulations

Complying with new regulations, which are often highly subjective, issued by federal governing bodies has more than doubled the time and cost of a microwave project compared to just two years ago. Some of these regulations, such as environmental reports required for sites and long-duration bird studies for towers above 450 feet, might make the project unfeasible. Some new regulations require new technologies, such as avian-compliant (migratory bird) LED lighting, which is physically incompatible with most existing lighting systems. In addition, the regulatory forms have not been updated to properly document new configurations and technologies being required. Methodologies for license applications have been made more challenging due to the fact that online application platforms are not up to date with the latest applications, such as Java. 

FAA and FCC procedures now require permits and licenses to be processed sequentially, not simultaneously. All new towers have to go through an environmental review process, which can take months. New towers above 450 feet require a migratory bird study, which demands additional time.

Be Prepared

Being aware and prepared to address the potentially time-consuming pitfalls of the site development process will help you avoid some of the surprises caused by the many challenges of building out a microwave network. An optimal schedule must contain contingency, since much of the elapsed time due to processing is out of the project’s control. Land acquisition issues, permitting issues and government filings continue to evolve with new rules and regulations.

About the Author

Tim Armintrout, Burns & McDonnell

Tim Armintrout, PE, is an electrical engineer and a technical lead in the Telecommunications & Network Engineering Group at Burns & McDonnell. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri at Rolla and his master’s degree from the University of Kansas.

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