5G Cell Service Is Coming. Who Decides Where It Goes?
By ALLAN HOLMES, The New York Times, 2 March 2018
WASHINGTON — The future of cellular service is coming to a neighborhood near you.
But who gets to decide when, where and how it gets delivered is still a heated fight.
(Photo): A concept design, left, and two other designs showing how streetlights and utility poles can be modified with equipment, often accompanied by a container on the ground that can be disguised as a mailbox, to deliver 5G cellular signals. CreditFrom left: Crown Castle International; Scientists for Wired Technology; City of Lincoln, Neb.
The new technology, known as 5G, delivers wireless internet at far faster speeds than existing cellular connections. But it also requires different hardware to deliver the signals.
Instead of relying on large towers placed far apart, the new signals will come from smaller equipment placed an average of 500 feet apart in neighborhoods and business districts. Much of the equipment will be on streetlights or utility poles, often accompanied by containers the size of refrigerators on the ground. More than 300,000 cell stations now provide wireless connections, and 5G will bring hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — more.
The prospect of their installation has many communities and their officials, from Woodbury, N.Y., to Olympia, Wash., insisting that local governments control the placement and look of the new equipment. They say that the cell stations could clutter neighborhoods with eyesores and cost the communities a lot of potential revenue.
“Residents across the country are just now beginning to understand the harms that hasty and insensitive small cell deployments can inflict on their communities,” said Jim Baller, the president of Baller Stokes & Lide, a law firm in Washington that represents municipalities on communications issues.
But telecommunications companies — hoping to cash in on what is predicted to be $250 billion in annual service revenue from 5G by 2025 — are pushing to build the system as quickly and cheaply as possible. And they have the federal government on their side.
The companies, like Verizon Communications and AT&T, say that the equipment will be safe and unobtrusive, and that it is needed to support future applications like driverless cars. Dotting them throughout neighborhoods is necessary for full coverage, they say, because the new 5G signals do not travel as far as the radio frequencies now in use.
The new equipment, AT&T told the Federal Communications Commission last year, “will revolutionize the way consumers and businesses use mobile broadband services, and of the emerging internet of things.”
To get their way, the telecom firms have lobbyists working state legislatures, advocating laws that restrict local oversight of 5G. Since 2016, 13 states have passed bills that limit local control, and several other states are considering similar laws. Wireless companies are also lobbying Congress, which is considering several bills on the issue.
And the F.C.C., under the leadership of Ajit Pai, its Republican chairman, has strongly encouraged weakening regulations to accelerate the deployment of new 5G technology — including reducing the role of local governments.
This week, another Republican F.C.C. commissioner, Brendan Carr, announced details of a plan to streamline the environmental and historic review process for 5G infrastructure, saying it could cut costs by 80 percent. The agency will vote on the measure this month.
Mr. Pai and Mr. Carr have said regulatory changes are necessary to keep pace with global competitors. But bringing high-speed service to underserved areas — closing the digital divide — has also been one of Mr. Pai’s central arguments for reining in local regulations. The money companies save from fewer regulations, he says, can be used to expand broadband into rural areas.
City officials are not buying it. Mobilitie, one of the nation’s largest cell-tower operators, submitted an unofficial plan in Montgomery County, Md., in the fall, designating where the company might want to place small cells. Of the 215 small-cell sites in that plan, only 11 were in areas with fewer than 1,000 people per square mile.
“It is deeply disingenuous to suggest that the need to pre-empt urban areas’ ordinances is so we can bring broadband to rural areas,” said Mitsuko R. Herrera, the county’s technology special projects director. “There is zero evidence to support that premise.”
Jason Caliento, a Mobilitie senior vice president, agreed. “Small cells are a tool in the toolbox, but alone are not going to solve the rural divide,” he said.
In January, Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose, Calif., resigned his seat on an F.C.C. 5G advisory committee, saying it was rigged to give industry what it wanted “without any obligation to provide broadband access to underserved residents.”
In response, Mr. Pai said the F.C.C. looked forward to working with the committee “to remove regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and to extend digital opportunity to all Americans.”
The wireless industry has filed multiple comments to the F.C.C. complaining about delays from local governments. AT&T executives saidofficials in California, whom they did not identify, had delayed deployment of small cells by more than 800 days because they “scrutinized” antenna designs, radio-frequency exposure and effects on property values, among other things. Companies have suggested cutting local approval windows by a month or more.
Cities and counties argue the delays are caused by the wireless companies themselves. Officials in Montgomery County said Mobilitie had routinely filed incomplete applications that caused months of setbacks.
Mobilitie officials said their relationship with local governments was “evolving” and leading to better collaboration. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen more progress” than has occurred lately, Mr. Caliento said.
City officials say shortening reviews risks small-cell facilities becoming unsightly and unsafe.
That is what worries Donna Baron, a 75-year-old retiree who learned a streetlight near her home on DuFief Drive in North Potomac, Md., was marked to become a small cell, as were dozens more nearby. She held up an image of a possible cell station that might replace the light.
“The pole is a lot rounder, it has boxes on it and a huge fake mailbox at the bottom,” Ms. Baron said. If the F.C.C. pre-empts local rules, “you’re going to end up with a Medusa, with a bunch more stuff attached.”
Wireless companies are also asking the F.C.C. to cap local fees. AT&T saysthat three California cities assess fees of $2,600 to $8,000 a year per attachment, and that a “Georgia municipality is considering an annual fee of $6,000 per node.”
David Young, who manages infrastructure leases for Lincoln, Neb., said he understood the carriers’ frustration. But he said cities had a responsibility to charge fair rates. He has negotiated with wireless companies to pay $1,995 a year per pole. He set the rate based on market analysis, which he discussed with the companies. “They were quite happy to pay the price that we asked,” Mr. Young said.
Texas cities can’t negotiate rates. Last year, the State Legislature passed a law pushed by AT&T that allows cities to charge carriers no more than $250 per pole each year. Before the law, cities often charged $1,500 to $2,500 a year per pole, and the change will cost Texas cities as much as $1 billion over eight years, the Texas Municipal League estimated.
AT&T argues that charging fees not based on cost violates the federal Communications Act, which blocks local governments from prohibiting broadband services.
A group of Texas cities led by the city of McAllen, near the Mexico border, filed a lawsuit last year against the state, arguing that the new cell-site law violated the state Constitution, which prohibits the Legislature from forcing cities to grant something of value to corporations.
Lawyers representing Texas argue the state has the authority to cap municipalities’ pole rental fees. During oral arguments in December, a judge denied the state’s motion for dismissal, and last month denied the cities’ request for a temporary injunction. The case is expected to go to trial this year.
The maneuvering in Washington has left people like Marc King, 71, a longtime resident of Germantown, Md., feeling resigned.
“A Russian woman stood up to speak at one of these public meetings, and she said that when she lived in Russia, the government slam dunked her and she had no say,” Mr. King said. “Now she lives in the United States of America, where she’s getting slam dunked by the government and she has no say. That gives you a window into what’s going on here.”
Allan Holmes is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative reporting organization in Washington.