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For small cell technology to significantly increase the capacity of tower-based cellular networks, mobile users will need to be actively pushed onto the more lightly loaded tiers (corresponding to, e.g., pico and femtocells), even if they offer a lower instantaneous SINR than the macrocell base station (BS). Optimizing a function of the long-term rate for each user requires (in general) a massive utility maximization problem over all the SINRs and BS loads. On the other hand, an actual implementation will likely resort to a simple biasing approach where a BS in tier j is treated as having its SINR multiplied by a factor Aj ≥ 1, which makes it appear more attractive than the heavily-loaded macrocell. This paper bridges the gap between these approaches through several physical relaxations of the network-wide association problem, whose solution is NP hard. We provide a low-complexity distributed algorithm that converges to a near-optimal solution with a theoretical performance guarantee, and we observe that simple per-tier biasing loses surprisingly little, if the bias values Aj are chosen carefully. Numerical results show a large (3.5x) throughput gain for cell-edge users and a 2x rate gain for median users relative to a maximizing received power association.