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Pa. Republicans pull the bill to greenlight 5G antennas as towns say it would undercut their zoning powers.

5G will be considered again in the fall given its promise of super-fast data links for robotics, telemedicine and driver-less cars. But the legislature's approach riled up a lot of people.

The State Capitol building in Harrisburg.
The State Capitol building in Harrisburg.Read more

Pennsylvania lawmakers canceled a vote Tuesday on proposed legislation that would make it easier and cheaper for wireless carriers to blanket cities, towns, and rural areas with thousands of small cell antennas on utility poles for 4G and next-generation 5G wireless services.

It was the third defeat for the Verizon- and AT&T-backed legislation.

Municipal officials and unions said they weren’t consulted on the bill, sponsored by Rep. Frank Farry (R., Langhorne).

Initially scheduled for Monday in the House Consumer Affairs Committee, Republican leaders delayed the vote until Tuesday and then canceled it altogether in the face of strong opposition.

Rep. Brad Roae (R., Erie), head of the committee, said Tuesday that 5G would be considered again in the fall and that Pennsylvania residents want faster wireless services and related economic development that comes with small cell antennas for broader 4G coverage and 5G.

Municipal officials want to “extort” high fees from the wireless carriers with these small cell antennas, Roae said.

A committee official said that lawmakers were flooded with calls and emails from municipal officials expressing concerns over the weekend, leading to the delayed and then canceled votes.

The Pennsylvania Municipal League, the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs, and the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners wrote to the Consumer Affairs Committee on June 13 that the proposed legislation doesn’t solve the lack of rural broadband access -- a big political issue statewide -- even as it undercuts their local zoning powers.

“When considered in concert, these provisions of the bill render local zoning control useless, as municipalities are not permitted to review applications for compliance with zoning regulations or deny proposed facilities for not meeting zoning requirements,” the letter said.

The proposed legislation also would set lower fees than what the Federal Communications Commission mandated in new national rules on small cells in 2018.

Others questioned why Pennsylvania needs a new law when the FCC mandated rules on small cell antennas on city blocks and residential neighborhoods in 2018, though about 25 states also have passed small cell legislation.

Experts say that wireless carriers, or infrastructure companies, could install 800,000 to three million small cell antennas in the United State over the next decade. The small cell antennas are expected to boost 4G wireless coverage for smart phones and launch 5G services for super-fast data connections for robotics, telemedicine, and driver-less cars. Philadelphia has already installed about 1,800 small cells for more wireless coverage bars on smart phones.

Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said that the proposed legislation lacks safety precautions as to how the small cell antennas -- the size of backpacks -- will be placed on utility poles. “Some of our concern is that their contractors are not well-trained,” Bloomingdale said of the contractors who will install the small cell antennas.