Across the US, 5G Runs Into Local Resistance

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Millions of Americans will soon encounter new poles or notice antennas sprouting on existing structures, like utility poles, street lamps and traffic lights, all over their neighborhoods. All four national cellphone companies are pushing to build out their networks with a profusion of small, local cells to keep their data-hungry customers satisfied and lay the groundwork for fifth-generation, or 5G, service. Those plans face pushback in many places, and not just from residents. Officials in some cities say they don’t have enough staff to process applications for dozens or even hundreds of new installations. In some smaller towns, officials say they lack the expertise to review the new technology, though they’re working fast to get up to speed.

State and federal policy makers are mostly backing the wireless carriers. Federal Communications Commission rules passed in March exempt small-cell deployments from certain historic-preservation and environmental reviews. Another FCC rule slated for a vote in Sept, seeks to lower local fees and would set 60-day or 90-day limits for local governments act on permit applications. A bill in Congress would deem small-cell applications granted if local governments fail to act on a request within 31 days. Dozens of state laws also restrict local governments’ control over small-cell projects. "It’s all gamesmanship right now,” says Angela Stacy, vice president at consultant SmartWorks Partners LLC, who advises local governments on telecommunications policy. “The carriers have basically launched a three-pronged attack” with the support of regulators and federal and state legislators.

Officials in San Jose (CA) have tried to parry that offensive by fast-tracking installations for carriers that have agreed to help fund a local internet-access initiative. At the same time, though, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says the city and its allies are “battling the industry mightily” on the federal and state level, lobbying to block policies they consider a handout to cellphone companies because they would limit the fees the carriers can be charged to install and operate small cells. “These poles are increasingly becoming valuable real estate. If cities can’t manage their own infrastructure—that their taxpayers paid to install—it puts them at a considerable disadvantage.”

Across the U.S., 5G Runs Into Local Resistance