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Pennsylvania bill regulating wireless facilities would strip away local authority, say Bucks municip

Several municipalities have come out against a state bill officials say would sap them of their ability to regulate wireless facilities, like “small cell” antennas, that carrier companies are preparing to roll out nationwide.

At least four Bucks municipalities are making shows of resistance against a state bill they say would deprive local governments of authority over wireless infrastructure.

Since August, officials in Doylestown Borough, Plumstead, Upper Southampton and Warrington have passed resolutions or written to state lawmakers opposing House Bill 1620, which creates a one-size-fits-all approach for the state’s 2,562 local governments regarding how they can regulate the wireless facilities. Upper Southampton was the latest municipality to make a stand, as supervisors unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday evening.

The state bill would allow wireless carriers to forego local zoning review or approval in placing or modifying most facilities in public rights of way — the areas surrounding public roads and sidewalks. Municipalities also would be forbidden from requiring wireless carriers to justify installing or modifying wireless facilities, and from charging fees beyond $1,000 for regular facilities or $100 for “small cell” antennas.

“Small cells” can grant wireless customers access to phone calls and the internet, much like cell towers but with a few key differences: The cells range from the size of a dictionary to that of a suitcase, allowing companies to place them on existing utility poles, and service fewer customers per cell.

Wireless carriers — such as AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — are preparing to invest tens of billions of dollars into “small cell” technology as they prepare to roll out 5G service for new devices, according to national trade group CTIA, an advocate of new regulation.

In late March, the Federal Communications Commission approved “an examination of the regulatory impediments” to these investments. Since then, the carriers and lobbying groups have contacted officials in multiple states, including Pennsylvania, hoping to streamline varying local laws they say prevent new wireless facilities from being developed.

“Compliance is burdensome, time consuming, costly and not only impedes but sometimes outright prohibits the deployment of small cell wireless infrastructure needed to meet consumer demands,” wrote state Rep. Nick Miccarelli, House Bill 1620′s primary sponsor, in a memo to lawmakers.

Frank Farry, R-142, of Langhorne, one of the bill’s six co-sponsors, said the bill is intended as a check against municipalities that might pursue fees from wireless carriers as a moneymaking venture during the zoning process. There’s also a public safety component to opening the door for small cells, he added — the technology could allow motorists to call 911 after getting in a car accident in zones that currently do not support cell service.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-18, of Bensalem, also is a local co-sponsor of the bill.

Local officials, however, say the carriers can achieve progress without taking away municipalities’ control of their own wireless infrastructure.

“You can have technological advancement, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the quality of life,” said Tim Brennan, a Doylestown Borough councilman, in September.

Brennan said the state bill “provides large costs to the municipality and ignores local concerns,” and added that he hopes Harrisburg tries to strike a better balance in terms of legislation.

As it stands, Upper Southampton officials wrote in their resolution, “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly is permitted to abolish right-of-way authority over wireless facilities today, then it could abolish all municipal authority over the public rights of way tomorrow.”

According to the Pittsburgh-based Cohen Law Group, which specializes in telecommunications law, most current municipal wireless ordinances address neither new “small cell” technologies nor wireless facilities in the public rights-of-way. As such, representatives wrote on the firm’s website, residential neighborhoods could be left open to attempts from wireless carriers to install mini-cell towers in highly visible locations, including near residents’ front lawns.

And Plumstead’s resolution urges the state General Assembly to oppose the bill in support of “the right of local municipalities to use their zoning authority to promote orderly development and preserve the integrity of their communities.”

State lawmakers have not yet voted on the bill, which has awaited review in the House Consumer Affairs Committee since late June.

Farry said he is “not fully comfortable” with the bill’s current language and anticipates lawmakers will make revisions to the bill — for example, allowing municipalities to retain full zoning authority over new wireless towers — before it comes to a final vote.

“I don’t think anyone’s really trying to stomp on the municipalities’ rights with this, but municipalities also need to be reasonable,” he said. “There needs to be a balance with this.”

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