Modern technology is facing an old problem as local governments wrestle with where to allow cellphone carriers to place new antennas that promise improved service and the next generation of smart technology.
Baltimore’s streets are dotted with more than 600 “small cell wireless facilities” on streetlights and utility poles, making the city one of the first areas in Maryland to welcome the new technology. The sometimes box-like equipment delivers cellular signals faster than traditional cellphone towers, paving the way for 5G service.
Other cities and counties are still figuring out how to regulate the facilities, which some consider eyesores on neighborhood streets.
The wireless industry and local governments have faced off on the issue in the General Assembly, and could again in 2020. The industry wants a clear path to install the equipment and would like to see statewide legislation, while local governments want to control where the facilities go and what they look like.
“Both sides, in my view, seem to have their heels dug in,” said Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat who has worked on small cell proposals the past two years. “They don’t appear to be willing to give in on issues.”
Small cell facilities can take many forms besides a box — for example, some are a long tip extending from the top of a streetlight, or clusters of devices encircling a utility pole.
Wireless companies say the devices are an integral part of the promising new wireless technology known as fifth generation, or 5G. The smaller antennas are necessary to carry signals that will deliver data and video even faster to consumers’ phones — and power the technology behind self-driving vehicles, improved communications between ambulances and hospitals, and smarter timing of traffic lights.
Wireless signals currently connect from a smartphone to a tall wireless tower up to a mile or two away. The new small cell facilities are placed much closer together — every few blocks — to enable signals to move through the network more quickly. Wireless companies say that in the short term, small cell facilities will relieve congestion on the current 4G networks. And they eventually will be used to roll out the 5G network.
So far, only a handful of phone models can connect to 5G networks; no Apple iPhones are compatible with 5G, for instance. And 5G service is available only in select parts of a few cities. In Baltimore, the only place to tap into 5G technology is at M&T Bank Stadium, where Verizon is offering 5G for its customers with compatible phones.
Anticipating an ever-broadening rollout in the coming years, the industry is hoping for standards that are uniform from one county to the next, as well as low permit fees.
“If there’s some similarity and predictability in the process, then we can better forecast and scale our deployments,” said Richard Rothrock, a lobbyist for Crown Castle, a Houston-based company that builds the towers for wireless carriers.
David Weissman, a Verizon spokesman, said the company has been putting small cell facilities on light poles, utility poles and rooftops around the country since 2013 and will announce plans for 5G service in 30 cities by the end of the year.
“As we’re deploying 4G small cells and 5G, and you’re going from city to city to state to state, the more uniformity the better,” he said.
But local governments in Maryland and elsewhere are seeking to protect their authority over what happens in their communities, especially in rights of way along streets where companies want to place equipment. The counties and cities want to be able to set rules and fees, as they do with other structures.
“Counties really want innovation. They want to advance technology and make sure their communities have advancements when it comes to cellular coverage and network services,” said Natasha Mehu, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties.
“However, we are very concerned with ensuring that whatever moves forward has local government and community input,” Mehu said.
The issue of 5G echoes earlier struggles over the need to balance emerging technologies with concerns about how those technologies will alter communities — such as debates over where to permit solar panels and wind turbines.
The Federal Communications Commission ordered local governments to set up permitting programs and allow the small cell facilities. The order, which went into effect in January, requires local governments to turn around approvals within 60 to 90 days and limits permit fees to a range of $100 to $500.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the move was necessary to push local governments “that are unreasonably standing in the way of wireless infrastructure deployment."
Dozens of city and county governments across the country have challenged the FCC order in court, but it remains in effect while the litigation plays out.
In the city of Annapolis, where there are heightened aesthetic concerns in the downtown historic district, officials haven’t set regulations yet. But Democratic Mayor Gavin Buckley recently attended a conference where he learned how other historic cities are dealing with small cell facilities.
“It’s coming, and we will need to find a way to accommodate it,” he said.
Prince George’s County is tackling the issue. The county council is currently considering a regulatory bill.
“This is new territory for everybody,” said Gina Ford, a spokeswoman for County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, a Democrat.
“The county is working on trying to ensure that we comply with the [FCC] mandate,” Ford said. “We’re trying to find our best path forward, understanding this is the future of technology.”
The bill pending in Prince George’s would set limits on the size and placement of facilities. It also would create a committee within county government to recommend ways companies can “mitigate the visual impact.” And companies would have to mail a notice to adjacent property owners as well as nearby civic associations.
The Baltimore County Council passed a bill this year laying out design guidelines for small cell facilities, including height and size limits and rules about using graffiti-resistant finishes and not harming street trees.
Verizon and AT&T have applied for permission to install facilities, and county officials are reviewing those applications, said Sean Naron, a county spokesman.
Crown Castle, which has installed small cell facilities on behalf of wireless carriers in Baltimore, and others in the industry say they want to be partners with local governments in figuring out issues of where to put small cell facilities.
“We’re not trying to impose anything,” said Matt Mandel, vice president of the Wireless Infrastructure Association. “We see the localities as partners in all this.”
In Baltimore, officials began working with cell companies on the antennas in 2010, and in 2015, the mayor and City Council began requiring legal agreements between the city and the companies, according to Victor K. Tervala, a chief solicitor for the city. Earlier this year, the city’s Planning Commission created guidelines for aesthetics of the towers.
Crown Castle said it has worked with city administrators, including historic preservation officials in some neighborhoods, to design unobtrusive structures, generally on replacement light poles.
In 2020, Tervala expects five companies will be installing small cell facilities in Baltimore, with some offering 5G service to customers with compatible phones.
In Ocean City, the company worked with town officials to install dozens of small cell facilities on lamp posts, and some include high-definition surveillance cameras that public safety agencies can use.
In Anne Arundel County, the administration of County Executive Steuart Pittman created a work group to hash out details before drafting a bill that was passed Monday by the County Council.
“We’ve been struggling with it for a while now,” said Peter Baron, government affairs director for Pittman, a Democrat.
“The industry and consumers are going to want 5G, and we want to make sure we have the strongest ability to regulate the placement and permitting of these devices,” Baron said.
Anne Arundel’s bill requires companies installing small cell facilities to send notices via certified mail to all property owners within 250 feet, at least 60 days before installation. The bill also requires the county to set design standards governing details such as how high the facilities can rise above a light pole and whether they fit in with the neighborhood.
In voting for the bill, Anne Arundel Councilwoman Amanda Fiedler said it was important for the county to be able to exercise control over the facilities to avoid bulky, unattractive devices.
“For me, I think it’s very important that this county has some say in refrigerators versus something aesthetically pleasing that blends in with the communities,” said Fiedler, a Republican who represents Severna Park and Broadneck.
The wireless industry argues that 5G networks will be a driver of economic growth, fostering innovation that can bring jobs. And they say communities that more quickly permit installation of small cell facilities will see quicker rollout of better service.
“Cities and counties in areas that have a process that makes it more streamlined to site small cells are going to see more investment from carriers and others for 5G,” said Mandel of the Wireless Infrastructure Association.
Maryland Policy & Politics
The wireless industry sought some certainty by having a bill introduced in this year’s Maryland General Assembly session to set statewide standards. The counties had their own plan. Davis, who is chairman of the Economic Matters Committee, shelved the bill supported by the technology companies after seeing the two sides were too far apart to resolve the issue during the 90-day session.
Mehu, from the Maryland Association of Counties, said her group was defending counties’ rights to control zoning and land use. She said the industry’s bill had a provision that if a county didn’t process a permit fast enough, it would be approved automatically. That was unacceptable to county governments.
“What the statewide bill did last year was go over and try to preempt what very little authority the counties had left,” she said.
She said statewide legislation isn’t needed.
It’s not clear whether the debate will return to Annapolis for the 2020 session. Since the last session ended in April, more counties have passed their own rules to allow the small cell facilities.
Davis said his committee will give a bill serious consideration only if the industry and the counties first work toward a compromise.
“I don’t want to waste anybody’s time if they’re not going to move,” he said.