The desire for faster Internet speed has resulted in a push for implementation of 5G small cell technology in Maryland coupled with a streamlined statewide approval process. This has been met with opposition across the state from municipalities who want more local control over the approval process.
A small cell network consists of numerous smaller sized antennae placed in public rights-of-ways (ROWs) on existing poles or placed on the ground. This enables wireless speed to increase manyfold over the speed provided by current large cell towers.
The City of Gaithersburg has been studying Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations, holding discussions with small cell utility companies, and taking steps to safeguard local autonomy over city rights-of-way (ROWs), beginning in 2016. In December 2017, the city passed legislation pertaining to small cell facilities. This addressed how telecommunications facilities can be installed in ROWs, clarified the zoning and installation requirements, and created special rules allowing staff approvals for certain installations that have limited impact.
New state legislation proposed by House Bill 654 would supersede local ordinances and regulations, limiting local government authority over the installation of small cell equipment and poles in the public ROWs. HB 654 was submitted by state delegate Dereck Davis (D-district 25). Public testimony was heard by the Economic Matters Committee, co-chaired by Davis, on Thursday, Feb. 21 in Annapolis.
This is the second time Davis has submitted legislation regarding installation and regulation of wireless facilities, aimed at streamlining the process. Last year Senate Bill 1188/House Bill 1767 never moved forward for consideration by the state legislature.
City of Gaithersburg attorney Lynn Board and Councilmember Mike Sesma testified against House Bill 654 and expressed support for coalition bills Senate Bill 713 and House Bill 1020, which would enable state and local governments to use their zoning and permitting processes to determine the best location for 5G in their ROWs.
Councilmember Sesma testified, “The National League of Cities has taken the position that legislation, such as HB 654, significantly impedes local government’s ability to serve as trustees of public property, safety, and well-being. This type of legislation will transfer significant local public resources to private companies, without securing any guarantee of public benefit in return. The City of Gaithersburg concurs with these concerns and strongly opposes HB 654 and other attempts to preempt local authority.”
Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich, Maryland Association of Counties, Maryland Municipal League (MML), Common Cause, and representatives from other municipalities also oppose HB 654. MML believes HB 654 would preempt local governments on a myriad of issues, including ROW access, zoning authority, fees and process.
Representatives from AT&T, Crown Castle, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon were among those who spoke in support of HB 654. AT&T already has small cells installed on the boardwalk in Ocean City and the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. Industry representatives support legislation to expedite the approval process.
After the public hearing, Board explained, “Our testimony in opposition to the industry’s bill centers on the fact that it would strip zoning authority from local governments over the public rights of way, would eliminate any public input or hearing from the application approval process, and would result in the public subsidizing a private industry as the bill would not allow local governments to collect fees equal their actual costs for processing these applications.
“We will continue to follow the proceedings in the Economic Matters Committee and the Senate Finance Committee (the Senate bills are scheduled for hearing on Feb. 26 for SB 713 and not yet scheduled for SB 937), where both bills are cross-filed and will work with the Maryland Association of Counties, the Maryland Municipal League and other community organizations and individuals to protect our residents’ interests in preserving the public rights of way,” she added.
Those opposed to HB 654 have come together to form a coalition in support of SB 713 and HB 1020, legislation they believe would enable state and local governments to utilize their zoning and permitting process, including public hearings, to determine the best location for 5G infrastructure and to control what goes in their ROWs and who has access to these areas, both in urban and residential areas.