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Leaders in Brunswick, Md., Adopt New Small Cell Regulations

(TNS) — Leaders in Brunswick, Md., looked toward the future at a Tuesday night council meeting, approving a new ordinance designed to regulate the placement of small cell antennas — an emerging technology used by companies such as AT&T and Verizon to improve network coverage.

The antennas can range from a few feet high to the size of a refrigerator and generally offer up to five city blocks of coverage, said City Administrator Dave Dunn. The technology is becoming increasingly popular among large cellular providers and smaller vendors as a way to “enhance capacity and fill in coverage gaps,” according to a report issued by the Federal Communications Commission.

“We’ve had people knocking on our door for some time to put these in our rights of way,” Dunn said. “I’ve been putting them off until we pass an ordinance that covers them.”

The antennas, or small towers, are often constructed on public spaces such as utility poles, rooftops, or standing communications towers, Dunn added. That can prove to be an issue for big cities and small municipalities alike, which are prevented — through FCC regulations — from denying construction of the antennas or drafting zoning laws to prohibit them.

A 2010 case further expanded the rights for communication companies to install the devices. That year, T-Mobile applied to the Frederick County Board of Zoning Appeals for permission to construct a 150-foot communications pole in Knoxville to close a gap in service coverage.

The board denied the application, and T-Mobile successfully sought an injunction to allow the construction of the pole, according to court records.

The technology is expected to be so significant for small governments that the Maryland Municipal League adopted it as a priority for the 2018 state legislative session, said Brunswick Councilman Harry Lashley.

There is no state legislation that establishes the right of municipalities to limit where the antennas are placed, Lashley said.

“The state is actually very vague on this,” he said. “We want to make sure a bill becomes law that says that the municipalities have a say over this.”

Brunswick became one of the first communities in Frederick County, including Middletown, to pass legislation that regulates where companies can place antennas in the municipality. Some restrictions are permitted under federal guidelines as long as they’re considered “reasonable,” according to Dunn.

“The feds are very strict,” he said. “You can’t zone them out. You can’t forbid them to come. You can only lay down reasonable expectations for installation. And according to our attorneys, these are reasonable.”

The ordinance was drafted by Cohen Law Group, a firm in Pittsburgh that specializes in telecommunications. The law restricts companies from installing antennas or poles on buildings included in the national or Maryland Registers of Historic Places, or on property deemed historically significant by the city.

Companies are also prevented from constructing poles or antennas unless they can prove that that current infrastructure would not sufficiently support the technology. Stealth technology — or camouflaging methods that are used to conceal cell sites — is expected to be used as extensively as possible, according to language in the ordinance.

The law also requires companies to apply for permission with the city, a process that involves fees. Applicants must make an initial deposit of $3,500 to cover expenses associated with the application and permitting process. That account must hold a balance of $2,000, and companies are also required to submit a $2,000 application fee.

“Brunswick has only had a few of those companies approach us, so far, but we know they’re coming,” Dunn said. “And it requires some measures to make sure we have some control over these things.”

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