A bipartisan group of 35 Pennsylvania House members, led by Rep. Frank Farry (R., Langhorne), is sponsoring legislation that would grease the bureaucratic wheels in local governments so that wireless companies can place thousands of 5G mini-cell antennas near roads, or in other publicly controlled rights of way.
5G is the next generation of wireless service that could lead to driver-less cars and robotic deliveries.
The proposed legislation, introduced July 13 — and heavily lobbied by wireless carriers that support it — could avoid lawsuits over disputes on the small cell antennas in their towns, lawmakers say. Elected representatives from virtually all of the state's metropolitan areas signed on as sponsors, and the bill is headed toward hearings.
But the Pennsylvania Municipal League opposes it as a giveaway to Big Telecom that would gut local zoning in the state's boroughs and towns and saddle municipal governments with extra costs.
Permits for the new wireless antennas would cost $100 and carry a $25 annual fee, which township officials say won't cover the municipal costs from the new poles or antennas.
"It's one-sided for the industry," said Richard J. Schuettler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. "People want to use 5G and we want it to happen. But there needs to be a recognition of local government and its historic inherent right to manage rights of way."
The proposed bill, Schuettler added, would be onerous for local towns with "one zoning officer who has to move all this paper."
Many of these 5G wireless antennas will be attached to existing utility poles. But others would be placed on new poles. The proposed legislation also allows utility poles in neighborhoods without them, which would upset local residents.
Dan Cohen, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represents several Pennsylvania towns, said the proposed fees for 5G antennas or poles are "insulting to municipalities" and would "cover a fraction of what the municipal costs actually are."
The legislation includes a "shot clock" of 15 days for a town to say an application is complete and 60 days for approval or denial. In towns with fewer than 50,000 residents, the proposed legislation says that wireless carriers can submit up to 20 applications a month for small cell antennas, or poles, a month.
Local governments, the league says, should control these areas for the public good and not corporations.
The Pennsylvania legislation is part of a national campaign by wireless carriers that face huge costs offering faster service for smart phones, with similar 5G laws considered or passed in dozens of states. The federal government also has been looking at the issue.
Verizon Communications, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile view the municipal rights-of-way in towns as wireless superhighways with poles sporting wireless antennas.
5G technology could create three million new jobs and $275 billion in private investment by 2026 and lead to more data-driven services, including driver-less cars and robotic deliveries, according to telecom groups supporting it.
Advocates also say that 5G could offer consumers a competitive option to cable's wire-line internet services, though Comcast has said it does not view 5G as a threat yet.
Farry said that many other states had enacted 5G legislation. Pennsylvania should get on the bandwagon before the courts or the federal government take more action, he said. "We are trying to find a common ground that works and that is not intrusive to the municipalities," Farry said. "There are clearly divergent interests."
Farry said that there would be compromises with the proposed legislation and he expected the final legislation to contain higher fees to be paid by the wireless carriers or those that operate the antennas, such as wireless infrastructure company Crown Castle. The company has major operations in Western Pennsylvania. In addition to lobbyists for wireless carriers, a special-interest grassroots group, the Pennsylvania Partnership for 5G, supports pro-5G legislation. Crown Castle formed the group.
House Bill 2564 is the second attempt by Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass legislation on 5G small cells through the House Consumer Affairs Committee. Farry said the current proposal was an improvement — and less onerous on local towns — than the prior proposal. "Do they want to play ball?" Farry asked of municipal officials. "Or are they just going to say 'no' all the time?"
Robert Lovenheim, a supervisor in Monroe County's Smithfield Township who has studied the 5G small cells issue, suggested that the legislation "set up a state office of small antennae permits, funded by industry fees, that any municipality could use as the clearinghouse for advice and responses when deluged with permit applications." There will be a Consumer Affairs public hearing on the proposed legislation in Harrisburg on Aug. 9.
So far, no serious 5G legislation "has gained traction" in the Garden State, said Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. "It's definitely on our radar."
Wireless companies in New Jersey seem to be speaking directly with town officials or waiting for new federal laws or regulations, Cerra said.