Cities and towns do not like the 5G bill slipping through Pennsylvania's legislature

A bill that would limit what local governments can charge telecommunications companies to install small-cell antennas in anticipation of the next generation of wireless technology is barreling through the Pennsylvania state legislature.

The bill, as currently written, sets the rates at which cities, towns and counties throughout the commonwealth can charge telecom companies at $100 for installing a new antennas on municipal utility poles and $25 for annual fees. The legislation, which is backed by a bipartisan group of 35 members of the Pennsylvania House, is unpopular with local governments, which say it will limit their abilities to regulate access to public property and control their own zoning.

The upshot is another brewing showdown between a state and its localities over the implementation of equipment that the telecom industry says is necessary for the forthcoming 5G wireless standard. Richard J. Schuettler, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Municipal League — a coalition of 96 municipalities ranging from Philadelphia to small towns with fewer than 1,000 residents — told the Philadelphia Inquirer the 5G bill winding through the state capital is “one-sided for the industry.”

Pennsylvania is far from the first state to catch the 5G fever. With promises that it’ll transfer data 100 times faster than current 4G benchmarks and power a universe of internet-connected devices, 5G has been dangled as being everything from a cybersecurity solution to an economic engine that’ll revitalize communities.

But because the 5G bandwidth requires cells to be located much more closely together — as much as one every 500 feet in dense areas — it will need an explosion in the number of cell locations. Small-cell antennas are small enough that they can be mounted onto existing utility poles. Municipal utilities have usually set the rates charged for pole access, but there’s an increasing list of states stripping local governments of that authority.

Cities pit against states

“These are facilities that were constructed for other purposes and we shouldn’t be giving a subsidy to a private for-profit entity,” says Sean Stokes, a Washington lawyer who specializes in municipal telecommunications cases.

Stokes tells StateScoop the wireless industry is making a “three-pronged attack.” One prong is to push the Federal Communications Commission to limit local governments’ ability to review telecom firms’ applications to deploy equipment; Chairman Ajit Pai proposed such a rule earlier this year. Another prong is federal legislation that would establish national rates for small-cell installations.