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Bill seeking to get PA ready for 5G technology strikes a nerve with local government groups

Legislation that would pave the way to faster Internet service and expand its capacity particularly in suburban and urban parts of Pennsylvania is getting some lawmakers' attention in Harrisburg this summer.

The House Consumer Affairs Committee on Thursday will hold a hearing at the Capitol to gather testimony about a bill that cuts wireless companies some breaks to speed up the approval process for placing antennas in public rights of way.

House Bill 2564, sponsored by Rep. Frank Farry, R-Bucks County, would streamline and make uniform across the state the rules and fees associated with placing these short-range pizza box-sized antennas on existing utility poles, new poles and other structures in the rights of way.

The reason this additional equipment is needed has to do with our growing appetite for devices that require wireless service - doorbell monitoring systems, wireless thermostats, driverless cars, - and the forthcoming 5G technology that is capable of transmitting data at least 40 times faster than today's 4G networks with virtually no lag time.

To get an idea of what that means, you can download a two-hour movie in about 90 minutes using 4G technology whereas with 5G, that same movie can be downloaded in about 4 seconds.

Further, there are economic benefits that include job creation from attracting new businesses to the commonwealth down to benefiting small companies hired by the wireless industry to help in locating sites for this so-called small cell equipment for the wireless industry. It brings educational and health care benefits as well.

"Wireless infrastructure and deployment and 5G are incredibly important to our competitiveness as a region and Pennsylvania, said David Kerr, an AT&T executive vice president. "Pennsylvania needs to consider this legislation to keep up with the 20 other states that have already passed this legislation."

What's hindering it from happening now has to do with the fact that this new technology requires wireless companies to install an abundance of these small cell towers, so abundant that would become as commonplace as street lights are now.

Requiring wireless companies to submit applications for all those antennas, pay the fee for each one, and comply with each municipality's set of rules to gain approval is viewed as problematic for them. It would be costly and time consuming.

Farry understands that building this network requires a significant investment on the part of wireless companies but he also considers it important that Pennsylvania take steps to make it happen.

"It could give us a competitive advantage with certain businesses and industries, not to mention their investment is going to be a job creator," he said.

So he set out to craft legislation that overcame objections to an earlier bill that was viewed by some as surrendering nearly all municipal control over the placement of the small cell equipment to wireless companies.

He believes his bill strikes a middle ground between wireless companies' desire for a streamlined and predictable approval process for placing this equipment in public rights of way and municipalities' desire to maintain some control over where the equipment is placed.

The bill allows for a wireless company to submit a single application for up to 20 facilities. It requires them to pay $100 application fee; a $25 annual fee per antenna; and $50 fee per pole. It also shortens the timeframe for review and approval to 60 days. Inaction on an application deems it approved.

It gives municipalities the authority to deny an applications if they view it as presenting a public safety concern or fails to comply with building or electrical codes or spacing requirements. It also protects historic districts and placement on decorative poles.

While AT&T is among those supportive of the bill, the Pennsylvania Municipal League, the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners and the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs are among the groups that see it as too much of a giveaway of municipalities' authority to manage their rights of way to wireless companies.

What's more, they don't think it's necessary.

"Municipalities in Pennsylvania have been approving wireless facilities' applications for years," said Dan Cohen, a Pittsburgh attorney who is representing the municipal groups. "Our firm assisted about 150 municipalities in Pennsylvania with their wireless ordinances and dealing with these wireless companies. I'm not aware of any one of them that has denied an application by the wireless industry."

Besides that, he said the proposed timeline for review of these application is too short and proposed fees too low. Further, Cohen said he fears it could set a precedent that could lead to further stripping away of municipalities' authority to over manage its rights of way.

The real shame, he said, is it doesn't include any language requiring the wireless industry to deploy high-speed internet to rural areas that lack reliable high-speed access.

AT&T's Kerr admits this proposal initially will reap benefits for suburban and urban areas where there are capacity constraints on the networks but the savings that wireless companies realize could then be directed to expanding coverage to underserved or unserved areas of the state.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors is more neutral on the bill than the other municipal associations. Its executive director David Sanko said it's an improvement over the earlier bill that was proposed but still there are some areas of concern.

"We look forward to working with the sponsor and committee to address our issues and move this process forward," Sanko said. "The delivery of this vital service is important to Pennsylvanians."

The Pennsylvania State Grange favors the bill. While the bill doesn't exactly address its number one priority of getting high-speed internet access to rural areas, it views it as presenting an opportunity that eventually may lead to that.

"The Pennsylvania State Grange believes very strongly it may well be that one large comprehensive solution may not work as well as trying a variety of solutions," said its legislative director Vince Phillips. "We look at this bill as recognizing a variety of approaches that gets us to the goal of universal broadband access in the commonwealth."

Farry said he sees his bill as a work in progress. Take the fees, for example. "The carriers know the fees are going to be higher than that. It's a bargaining range," he said.

He also believes that future changes to the bill will emerge based on the testimony provided at the hearing and they likely will be slanted in municipalities' favor. But he doesn't want to see Pennsylvania lose out on this opportunity that would enhance public safety, education, access to health care, and the economy.

"My hope is we can spend time coming up with something that is workable and moves this forward," Farry said. "These days, everybody is attached to the internet. Young people even more so. We just have to figure out what's the most fair to make this happen."

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