MONTGOMERY — A bill that would set a statewide standard for deploying 5G cellular infrastructure, including how much money cities can charge providers for access to existing utility structures, has support from multiple lawmakers, but municipal leaders say the bill takes away too much local control.
Senate Bill 172 would mandate a request process for cities to follow when approached by wireless providers such as AT&T and Verizon and sets a cap on the fees municipalities can charge companies for the use of city-owned rights-of-ways.
It passed out of the Fiscal Responsibility and Economic Development committee last week with no opposition.
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, the bill’s primary sponsor, said 5G technology is a “public good” for the state and is needed to grow business in Alabama. Orr previously has said that cities’ fees to providers are stalling that growth.
“We — the state of Alabama — are missing out on billions of dollars that are being invested in 5G today,” Orr said during the committee meeting. “Capital will always follow the path of least resistance, and right now Alabama is not poised to access that capital investment.”
Orr had a similar bill last year but it was never voted out of the Senate. Instead, a task force was created to review the issue.
During those task force meetings, representatives from municipalities continued to voice their concerns over the legislation, saying it took away their local control.
The Alabama League of Municipalities’ executive director, Greg Cochran, said the league continues to be against Orr’s bill and does not think a statewide standard is a wise choice for deploying 5G in Alabama.
“When you start taking these cookie cutter approaches to legislative regulatory oversight, it really causes hardship for the local officials,” Cochran told Alabama Daily News. “That’s why we’ve always advocated for the voice of the cities, that they should have local authority to manage their local resources and needs for their citizens.”
In 2019, about 11 cities approved resolutions that opposed Orr’s legislation, according to the League of Municipalities. Separately, the mayors of the five largest cities — Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa — asked legislative leadership not to support the bill.
5G, which stands for “fifth generation,” is the latest in wireless technology that allows high-speed internet access over cellular networks to ensure quality of service in high-capacity areas. Those networks require “small cell” receivers and antennas to take the signal transmitted from cell phone towers and disperse it locally. Providers want to place those cells, described as being the size of two stacked rolls of paper towels, on utility and light poles and other public-owned property.
Application Caps Laid Out in Proposal
Orr’s bill lays out application fee caps, including $500 for the first five small cells and $100 for every subsequent small cell.
If a provider wants to build or replace an existing utility pole, that is capped at a one-time fee of $1,000.
In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order to “remove regulatory barriers that inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary for 5G and other advanced wireless services.” It capped annual fees at $270 per year per small cell.
Some states have appealed, citing overreach by the FCC, and the case is pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Orr’s bill, annual fees are also capped at $270.
Last year in a proposed substitute bill, the League suggested a $900-per-pole fee.
During the committee meeting, Orr explained that neighboring states such as Georgia have a total cap of $140 in recurring charges; Tennessee has a cap of $100.
Cochran said he doesn’t mind following the FCC regulations when it comes to fees but doesn’t like how Orr’s bill puts a hard cap on what municipalities can charge.
“I think having the FCC order in place while the local ordinances regulate how small cell is deployed at the local level is the best way to handle this,” Cochran told ADN. “If the FCC order is overturned, then you still have your local ordinances in place to manage how they want to roll it out.”
Orr’s bill also lays out reasons municipalities could reject applications. The bill defined rights of way as the area on, below, or above a public utility easement, roadway, highway, street, sidewalk, alley or similar property.
Birmingham Senator Favors Bill, Vestavia Hills Mayor Opposes It
Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, said he supports the bill, especially in light of the World Games coming to Birmingham in 2021.
“I represent Jefferson, Shelby and Talladega county, and we need to have [5G] totally turned on,” Roberts said. “We’ve got the 2021 games coming to Birmingham and we do not want spinning dials when people are trying to get connections, so I think it’s a great step moving forward.”
One city that has been outspoken against the bill is Vestavia Hills. Mayor Ashley Curry sent a letter last week to lawmakers saying that the city of Vestavia Hills already worked in good faith with wireless providers and asks why a state wide regulation is even needed.
“This begs the question, with an adequate ordinance in place, do we even need state legislation to accomplish the goal of the new technology?” the letter reads. “Our current ordinance and similar ordinances in other cities, do not impede or prevent the deployment of small cell technology in Alabama.”
Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, represents parts of Walker, Tuscaloosa, Fayette, Winston and Jefferson counties. He said he hasn’t decided on the bill and is still considering both sides of the argument.
“I have heard from some [cities] that are interested in this and I think it’s all about understanding the rights and responsibilities they have in managing their rights-of-ways in their own communities. Certainly I’m respectful of that but at the same time we need to figure out a way to manage it forward because this technology is a must for us to have as we compete with other states,” Reed said.
Devin Pavlou contributed to this reporting.