Jonathan Adelstein column: Don't turn Virginia into a pincushion


We all know the frustration that comes when an important phone call drops unexpectedly. Or, while working remotely, your internet network slows to mid-1990 speeds. Farmers and business people in rural areas experience the challenge every day of relying on mobile broadband for access that does not match what is available in urban areas.

These challenges have important effects on public safety, educational opportunities, and economic growth.

Virginia lawmakers are seeking to improve the commonwealth’s wireless infrastructure. The Wireless Infrastructure Association, based in Alexandria, shares and supports these goals. Indeed, our membership, which includes many Virginia-based businesses, has long supported policies that promote deployment of needed wireless infrastructure in communities throughout Virginia.

Investments by our members have helped to narrow the gap in service between rural and urban areas. We remain heavily invested in achieving that goal in a responsible, sustainable, and efficient manner.

Unfortunately, the proposed plans could have the opposite of their intended effect because they eliminate the long-recognized role of localities and public input on how wireless infrastructure is incorporated into the community.

The bills, HB1258 and SB405, would replace a system of collaboration between industry and local decision-makers that has succeeded in creating world-class networks and improving access for all.

We are concerned that these bills could harm the prospects for rapid introduction of more innovative technologies across the commonwealth.

If these plans become law, Virginia’s landscape could be turned inadvertently into a pincushion dotted with cell towers. Citizens would have no ability to provide meaningful comment on whether new towers can be placed in their neighborhoods, or on their neighbor’s property. And they would not improve broadband access in Virginia’s underserved rural communities where economics, not regulation, are the impediment.

The pending legislation would require localities to approve applications administratively to put wireless towers and equipment within 500 feet of an existing utility pole.

That covers nearly all of the densely populated areas of Northern Virginia, Richmond, Hampton Roads, every city in the state, and most small downtowns.

Virginia’s local officials have long weighed public comments, held hearings, and considered a range of potential effects to decide where towers should go in their communities.

These bills, with the good intention of streamlining the process, upset the balance between the growing need for more cell towers and the local democratic process.

The bills also strip the authority of local governments to require wireless companies to collocate equipment, the industry term for sharing space on the existing structures.

This will lead to new tower farms sprouting up within 500 feet of where utility polls already exist.

Collocation of infrastructure where it already exists is the industry norm in the U.S. It works well for both the wireless industry and for local communities by reducing visual clutter, encouraging competition by lowering the barrier to adding new technology, and supporting environmental preservation.

Virginia should not risk becoming the first state to do away with this successful practice.

Advocates for these bills say the impact will be limited because they only apply to new towers under 50 feet. But that is as tall as a five-story building. It’s one thing to put those in a right-of-way such as a busy street. But the legislation would require localities to administratively approve placing new towers throughout neighborhoods like mine in Arlington.

Do not let Virginia become a pincushion covered with tower farms. We can meet the wireless needs of Virginia consumers by including them in a smart process of placing wireless facilities where they are needed — and that means with proper planning and input.

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Jonathan Adelstein is the president and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association. He previously served as a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, and is a current member of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee. He may be contacted at adelstein@wia.org.

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