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New York Cities Object to Proposed State Rules on 5G Towers

A regulation tucked into Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget plan regarding cell towers is pitting local governments against the state and major telecom providers like AT&T and Verizon.

The proposal would set statewide standards for approving and charging for the use of cell towers, telephone poles or other fixtures that wireless providers use to carry their signals via the newly emerging 5G technology.

Municipal officials say that impinges on their local control of cell towers.

“This legislation would handcuff the ability of every municipality in New York state to manage access to their public rights-of-way,” states a memo on the proposal from the state Conference of Mayors.

State officials, though, say local governments would still deal with cell tower applicants. "The bill sets up a uniform process entirely administered by local governments, allowing for local control while encouraging private investment to expand service," said Budget Division spokesman Morris Peters.

Much of the fight appears to center on money and a clause that would impose a $200 annual rental limit for each small cell signaling device a carrier put on a pole.

“Significantly, this bill seeks to limit how much a municipality may charge a wireless provider when renting space on municipally-owned structures,” reads the memo.

Some municipalities including Buffalo have wanted to charge up to $2,000 annually for each device.

The catch is, with the developing 5G technology, wireless transmitters need to be placed as close as 500 feet apart. That means a town could have dozens or even hundreds of devices.

Paying thousands of dollars per year, per device would make it uneconomical, say those in the telecom industry.

“Who is going to deploy with those costs?” asked Robert Puckett, president of the state Telecommunications Association.

Also known as “small cell,” 5G is viewed as the next generation of wireless technology which has so much capacity that it could eventually replace the need for hard-wired services.

Rather than hooking into a copper or even fiber-optic wire, 5G proponents say consumers will eventually be able to get all their web-based services via these densely-packed wireless signals.

Proponents note that 5G technology will help bring high-speed broadband service to upstate areas that currently don’t have it.

“It’s really an economic development issue,” said Marissa Shorenstein, Northeast President for AT&T which like Verizon is anxious to move forward with the technology.

She noted that some other states have already moved ahead with the kind of uniform regulations and price limits that they want in New York.

“We’re going to deploy small cells to places where we’re wanted,” she said.

Municipalities aren't the only ones upset with the proposal. Representatives of the cable industry, which relies on hard wiring, say the plan creates an unlevel playing field.

That's because cable firms still have to negotiate their rights of way with local municipalities, said Lara Pritchard of Spectrum cable.

She as well as the Cable Telecommunications Association believe the proposal should also be discussed outside of budget talks, which are supposed to be finalized in less than two weeks.

Existing cell tower transmitters have generated a lot of cash for municipalities around the state.

In the town of Bethlehem, for example, cell carriers pay about $2,400 per month to rent, or use the right of way on structures like a town water tower, said Paul Penman, the town’s deputy commissioner of public works.

But rather than having a handful, the 5G system would require scores of transmitters.

Some industry observers believe the gap between the $200 cap and, say, the $2,000 fee sought in Buffalo, will serve as a starting point for bargaining that will likely take place between now and the final state budget.

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