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Maryland lawmaker cancels bill to limit local control over new cellular facilities

A Maryland lawmaker has withdrawn a bill that could have significantly curtailed local authority over where new cellular equipment structures may be installed in residential areas and what they may look like.

Wireless companies and local officials said they will continue to try to negotiate a way to boost Internet speeds, particularly in cities and densely populated suburbs, without creating potential eyesores close to homes.

State Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said he canceled a Tuesday hearing on the bill because it was too controversial. He said local governments and wireless companies were “worlds apart” over how and where to allow “small-cell” technology to expand broadband capacity and install 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. Residents also were worried about the potential health effects of cellular equipment closer to homes, he said.

“As far apart as the jurisdictions are with the telecommunications companies, it’s hard to imagine we’d get anything resolved” before the General Assembly session ends next month, Middleton said Wednesday.

Wireless companies are lobbying state lawmakers nationwide to limit the scope of local zoning laws for cell towers. The companies say they need more leeway to install equipment that will be much smaller and lower-powered but closer together and lower to the ground than the large towers that 1990s-era zoning rules were written for.

They say much of the new equipment will be attached to utility poles, streetlights and other structures, but also will require new poles, including in neighborhoods with underground utilities.

City and county officials had opposed the Maryland bill, saying they needed to retain their ability to protect communities from potentially ugly antenna-topped poles that could soon line roads and other public rights of way.

“They got the conversation started, and now the game is on,” said Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “We’re going to spend the next year dealing with whether this proposal to take away our control is needed or not. It’s far from over.”

Riemer said local officials want the latest wireless technology for their residents but want a say in how tall the poles may be and how well they blend into communities.

“We don’t want duplicative equipment on every street or schlocky, junkie installations, when we can get installations that can integrate nicely into neighborhoods,” Riemer said. “That’s what this is all about.”

Since 2016, about 14 states have passed laws allowing new small cell poles up to 50 feet tall to be exempted from some local zoning laws, including those that allow for public hearings on applications.

Similar legislation is pending in about 18 states, including Virginia, where bills recently passed the General Assembly. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has not said whether he will sign them.

Jonathan Adelstein, chief executive of the Wireless Infrastructure Association, said companies are likely to invest most in states that have made it more efficient and cost-effective by standardizing local zoning rules.

“The danger is Maryland will fall behind other states that are streamlining their [cell facility] siting and lose out on broadband investment as a result,” Adelstein said.

Jamie Hastings, of CTIA, said the industry group will work with Maryland lawmakers to “find a path forward.”

As states that have passed small-cell laws have shown, Hastings said, “It is possible to modernize infrastructure deployment while preserving local authority.”

Crown Castle, one of the largest wireless infrastructure companies, said it, too, will continue working on the issue “to bring faster, more reliable service to Maryland residents.”

Some Maryland counties, including Montgomery and Anne Arundel, are already working to update their zoning laws to make small-cell equipment easier to install, said Natasha Mehu, of the Maryland Association of Counties.

“Planning and zoning is a very local thing,” Mehu said. “I really think counties are interested in this technology. They’re just looking to handle things on the local level.”

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