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Statewide 5G infrastructure bill passes first vote but cities still concerned

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill that would set a state-wide 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 like 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, is the bill’s primary sponsor and says 5G technology is a “public good” for the state and is needed to grow business in Alabama. Orr has previously 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 it 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 ADN. “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, 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 the size of two stacked rolls of paper towels, on utility and light poles and other public-owned property.

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 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 like Georgia have a total cap of $140 in recurring charges or Tennessee who 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 why 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.

Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, is a co-sponsor on the bill and said Alabama can’t afford to miss out on the economic benefits of having 5G in the state.

“It’s going to make sure that money comes to Alabama and doesn’t go to other states,” Scofield said. “5G is coming and the faster we get a state-wide uniformed fee structure like this the quicker it’s going to be deployed here.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle said he is excited about the possibility of 5G but can’t support the bill because of the lack of local control.

“The maintenance and management of the public right of way should be under the control of the government closest to the people: towns and cities,” a spokesperson from Battle’s office said. “Cities across the state have made agreements with a host of companies to bring this infrastructure to market already without a statewide bill.”

Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said the city of Tuscaloosa already has a great working relationship with wireless companies like AT&T and thinks a one-size-fits-all approach that this legislation would provide will be counter-productive.

“Allow cities to work individually with AT&T to resolve these problems because the issues on our rights-of-ways are probably different than what you would find in Huntsville and different from what you find in Mobile,” Maddox told ADN.

Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, is a member of the committee and said he knows the city of Huntsville doesn’t like the bill. However, he still sees the need for 5G technology in his area.

“Huntsville is the home of the second largest research park in the whole country,” Butler said. “There is advanced technology every time you turn around. I think we need to go state wide and the better technology we have across the state of Alabama will enable us to move forward faster.  I support the bill and it’s obvious that the majority of people from Madison County support that bill.”

Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, said 5G is still a long way away from reaching rural Alabama, including the Lawrence, Marion, Winston and Cullman county district he represents. Still he supports the increase of access to technology in the state.

“Any time we can get technology to as many people as possible with the lowest fee as possible, I’m going to be for that,” Gudger said.

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.”

Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he understands that municipalities may have concerns about control and that wireless companies are worried about burdensome fees, but the state needs 5G technology.

“All I ask of everybody involved, if it gets down to being about money, I get it, but we all agree that we need 5G, so we’ve got to find a way to solve this because we’ve got to have the technology,” Marsh told ADN.

Devin Pavlou contributed to this reporting. 

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