MD Lawmakers Stave Off Easing Small Cell Tower Siting

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The Maryland legislature is resisting a push by the wireless industry to ease small cell deployment for 5G. That’s despite the industry’s complaint that counties and municipalities are slow to respond to calls to speed the tower siting and permitting process.  

Tower siting and permitting can take years, industry representatives told the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday. 

Over the last two years, state lawmakers introduced measures to require counties and municipalities to adhere to a common set of guidelines, but they withdrew those measures.

Residents in some neighborhoods don’t want to see the towers, reports Maryland Matters. Benjamin Kramer (D-Montgomery) said he’s received a lot of mail from constituents worried about the safety of living near cell towers.  

Finance Committee Chairwoman Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said lawmakers are eager to educate themselves about the issue, but are not going to consider a bill this session. That’s because federal courts are set to begin hearing an appeal of recent FCC rule changes governing siting. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to issue a ruling on the appeal in June, according to Maryland Matters.

AT&T attorney Andrew Emerson said more than 29 states and Puerto Rico, “have some sort of uniform process, uniform rates, and uniform timeline for permitting.” But in Maryland, he said, the telecom spent two years negotiating tower placement with the the city of Gaithersburg and three years with Baltimore City. “That’s not a solid policy to attract the capital and expedite deployment in the state,” he told the panel. “That’s not where my client is going to invest and that’s not where the rest of the wireless industry is going to invest.”

That experience led AT&T to shift money for 5G infrastructure that was going to Maryland to Northern Virginia instead, Emerson testified. Beth Cooley, head of State Legislative Affairs for CTIA, said the lack of “regulatory certainty” is an issue for other telecoms as well, according to the account.

Municipal officials defended their process for considering tower applications. Maryland Municipal League (MML) President Ryan Spiegel said companies that seek to locate towers in residential areas “make rights-of-way a Wild West where there would be unfettered access to put facilities.” Spiegel, a member of the Gaithersburg City Council,  said the MML tried, without success, to reach a compromise with industry.

Lynn Board, the city attorney for Gaithersburg, said prior FCC rulings have already stripped local governments of much of their ability to regulate the location and design of cell towers and the fees that firms seeking permits must pay. “The first set of orders pretty much gutted authority of these provisions, but they want more,” she said of the agency.

Emerson said the push for 5G is not just about accommodating autonomous cars and other high-tech, but also about keeping up with “existing network needs.” He noted: “AT&T alone has had a 470,000 percent increase in mobile data minutes since 2007, when the iPhone was released. This investment has to be done.”

But Bill Jorch, the head of government relations for the MML, said the industry’s experience in Baltimore City is proof the current system works. “They’ve had more than 600 installations in city rights-of-way, from five different wireless providers, and they expect hundreds more by the end of this calendar year alone,” he said. “Some of [the towers] will be 5G capable.”

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