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Towns vs. telecoms: Cuomo pushes to expand cells’ faster ‘5G’ network

Towns and cities are crying foul about a little-noticed provision tucked away in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s state budget that would boost phone companies’ efforts to build a “5G” wireless network, saying it gives away public access at unfairly low prices and undermines their ability to regulate location and appearance of the new technology.

“Everybody wants more broadband, but this really usurps the authority of local governments,” said Gerry Geist, executive director of the New York Association of Towns and Villages. “This is really an industry bill.”

It is a towns versus telecoms fight that is taking place not only in New York but in a growing number of states.

Telecoms, such as AT&T and Verizon, want to use utility poles and streetlights to place “small cell” facilities to enhance speedier internet and streaming services — upgrading from existing “4th Generation” service to “5th Generation.”

The facilities can contain a variety of pieces such as electric meters and cables, and sometimes a refrigerator-sized box on the ground near the pole.

Faced with negotiating fees and zoning regulations in each and every jurisdiction, companies increasingly have turned to thefederal government and states to ease access after sparking protests in Oyster Bay and other communities around the nation about aesthetics, property values and local control. The companies are asking for statewide legal frameworks that limit local-government regulation. More than 10 states already have adopted “small cell” regulations and Cuomo, a Democrat who is up for re-election, is seeking to join them.

“The bill sets up a uniform process entirely administered by local governments, allowing for local control while encouraging private investment to expand service,” Cuomo spokesman Morris Peters said in an email.

Cuomo’s endorsement idea comes after a bill with the same goal died in the State Legislature last year after not advancing through a single committee. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and an industry umbrella group lobbied for the bill, according to state lobbying records.

The governor’s backing gives the idea more traction. A Verizon spokesman said the proposal would speed the arrival of 5G service.

The industry says the new generation of wireless technology will give users not only greater data speeds, it will boost response times for so-called “smart” devices, and expand the ability to connect a lot more devices at once.

“Today, we have to go through 1,500 separate jurisdictions throughout the state . . . without a uniform approach,” said Verizon spokesman David Weissman. He said 5G networks are needed because of the continuing boom in the use of mobile devices and asserted that a regulatory scheme that allows companies an “unfettered” approach would be a “win for everyone.”

Trouble is, according to local government groups, Cuomo would give away access at $20 per installation — which some say is a fraction of the market rate of roughly $2,000. His proposal also would take away local rights to regulate public “right of way” access, allow companies to install antennas up to 50 feet high without objection and remove towns’ and villages’ ability to bargain to make sure companies’ equipment reaches underserved areas.

“Sure, they want it cheaper and easier, but when it involves the public right of way, public safety” and community aesthetics, locals should have a say, said Peter Baynes, head of the New York Conference of Mayors.

As written, Cuomo’s proposal “requires local taxpayers to subsidize industry’s installation of these devices,” Baynes said.

While the industry was backing the bill that would have limited local-government input, Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) and Assemb. John McDonald (D-Cohoes) tried to advance one that would have the opposite impact: Expressly prohibiting companies from installing the equipment boxes on existing poles unless they had or obtained permission.

“The governor’s proposal really tramples the concept of ‘home rule,’ ” McDonald said, referring to the placement of “these gargantuan boxes.”

The Democrat-led State Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate have just presented their separate budget proposals, giving legislators and Cuomo the negotiating parameters for adopting a state fiscal plan by the April 1 deadline. Neither included the 5G idea in their proposals.

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