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Local Control at Heart of Two Small Cell Bills in Maryland

The bills were presented after lawmakers could not come to a consensus on which was the best. Local governments are hoping to preserve control over siting decisions, while wireless carriers want speedy access.

(TNS) — Dueling bills on how local governments can control the placement of small wireless facilities — as telecommunication companies prepare to build a 5G network nationwide — had those gathered in Annapolis, Md., to testify on Tuesday switching between offense and defense as the state Senate Finance Committee heard both bills simultaneously.

The pair of competing bills arrived in Annapolis this session despite months of negotiations between elected officials and wireless telecommunication companies in an attempt to reach a consensus on rules for deploying the emerging cellphone technology. The parties were far from reaching one, however, with counties and municipalities supporting one bill and companies such as Verizon, Sprint and AT&T supporting another.

“We had been working off one bill,” said Bill Jorch, manager of government relations and research at the Maryland Municipal League. “The closest we got on negotiations — was not introduced.”

The sole legislative priority of the Maryland Municipal League in 2019 is to stop the pre-emption of local zoning authority to select the placement of the small wireless facilities. This is in reaction to a Federal Communications Commission order that shortened the review period and capped the fees local governments could charge wireless telecommunication companies to use utility poles in existing rights of way. The order is being challenged in court.

For the wireless carriers, however, the bills are about creating some certainty before they build.

Several carriers are supporting SB 937 sponsored by Sen. Katherine Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), which would grant wireless providers the right — not subject to zoning review and approval — to install, operate, modify, maintain and replace utility poles and small wireless facilities in a right of way.

This would streamline the deployment of small wireless facilities in the state, said Joseph Askew, vice president of state government affairs for Verizon in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Similar bills have been considered and passed in at least 21 other states in the last two to three years.

“What we’re trying to promote is investment in the state of Maryland in a robust way. ... If both bills fail, there won’t be the amount of investment to ensure you have a robust wireless infrastructure in the state of Maryland,” Askew said.

In the last 12 years, AT&T alone has seen a 470,000 percent increase in data usage on its network, said LaTara Harris, regional director for external and legislative affairs for AT&T in Maryland.

“Time is of the essence, you heard from my colleagues on the panel too, and you also understand that your constituents are demanding faster, reliable mobile broadband connections to improve all aspects of their lives,” Harris said.

Local governments want the 5G technology to come to their towns and cities; however, they also want to maintain control of where it is placed and other aesthetic qualities.

SB 713 sponsored by Sen. Pamela Beidle (D-Anne Arundel), would give local governments broader control of where small wireless facilities are installed. The governments would also be able to charge up to $2,500 or 2 percent if the gross revenue of a wireless provider to attach to a utility pole and have 180 days to approve or disapprove of a complete application.

The bill would also create a Digital Inclusion Fund to provide grants and loans to authorities to install wireless facilities and poles in underserved areas of Maryland. The fund would be paid for by a 1 percent surcharge on wireless providers sale of wireless services in the state.

The fees and timeline proposed in SB 713 are not reasonable, according to Askew. The industry is looking to establish a law to access poles fairly, with a clear time frame and process to review the applications and reasonable fees to deploy the new technology, he said.

The wireless industry fought for the same certainties in 2018, but the bill got stuck in committee. Maryland lawmakers may not have the luxury of punting on a decision for another year, however, with the Federal Communications Commission order now out.

“We really need some control over what’s installed in our communities,” Beidel said in defense of her bill.

©2019 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.