In at least 20 state capitols across the country this year, the wireless industry is pushing legislation to streamline local permitting for the next generation of cellular technology.
In Washington state, that's putting the industry on a collision course with cities and towns.
Instead of soaring towers with antennas on top, future cell sites will adorn power poles and streetlights.
The wireless industry says these densely packed, small cell sites will lead to even faster download speeds for the fifth generation of cell phones compared to the current generation. A movie that currently takes minutes to download over 4G wireless will take just seconds.
"It sounds super sexy and we hope that it is," said Beth Cooley with CTIA, a national trade group that represents wireless carriers.
In February, Cooley told members of of a Washington state Senate committee that the wireless industry plans to deploy a quarter-of-a-million small cell sites nationwide in the coming years. To accomplish that goal, Cooley said the industry will need broad access to publicly-owned property.
"Small cell technologies are generally installed on street furniture ... utility poles, street lights, traffic signal poles," Cooley said. "This is sweeping the country and very hyper-competitive amongst the cities and the states right now."
National lobbying effort
The wireless industry is delivering the same message in statehouses across the country—from Washington to Florida. CTIA says small cell permitting legislation has been introduced in at least 19 states this year, following the passage of laws in Ohio and Kansas last year. An analysis by MultiState, a government relations firm in Alexandria, Virginia, identified wireless siting bills in nearly half the states. CTIA says so far this year legislation is advancing in Arizona, Colorado and Virginia.
In addition, the industry-backed American Legislative Exchange Council has passed a resolution calling on states to "streamline" local permitting of small cell technology.
While the details of the bills differ from state to state, the wireless industry says it's generally looking for access to municipal properties, reasonable costs and fees and streamlined permitting.
But the industry's aggressive push is getting some pushback from cities and towns.
"We welcome higher speeds," said Marilyn Strickland, mayor of Tacoma, Washington. "But at the same time there has to be some respect for what we want here as a community."
On a walk along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, Strickland stopped in front of a historic streetlamp.
"Its purpose is not in my opinion to hold technology, it's to be decorative and to add to the aesthetic, positive view of what Hilltop looks like," Strickland said.
Poles and lights
Strickland is troubled by an industry-backed bill in the Washington legislature that would require local governments to allow small cell antennas to be attached to publicly-owned poles and structures that line city streets—unless there was a safety or engineering concern.
The bill would also require cities and town to approve master permits for small cell attachments within 90 days and it would prohibit requirements for aesthetic standards, except in designated historic or themed districts.
In addition, the bill would limit how much Washington cities could charge in annual pole rental fees, a decision defended by the legislation's sponsor, Republican state Senator Doug Ericksen, chair of the Senate Energy, Environment and Telecommunications Committee.
"We got a choice," said Ericksen. "We can be the broadband super highway or we can look like I-5 through Seattle at 5 o'clock in the afternoon."
Ericksen says next generation wireless technology will bring jobs and economic development to Washington state. But he believes current local zoning and permitting standards are an impediment to 5G buildout.
"Washington state right now has a terrible reputation for being a bad place to be able to deploy wireless. We need to fix that so we can get those companies to bring the money here first and not last," Ericksen said.
Ericksen's bill failed to get a vote on the floor of the Washington Senate before a key cut-off deadline in March. However, there are rumblings it could be revived before the end of the legislative session. State Senator Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who has a background in the wireless industry, sees a pathway to compromise between the industry and local governments.
"We don't want cell sites hanging from every single streetlamp and pole without question, we want it done in a responsible, thoughtful way and that's what this is about," Carlyle said.
For Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland, this fight is about more than just aesthetics and local control. It's also about being able to ensure what she calls "digital equity"—the idea that Hilltop, an emerging neighborhood, would have the same access to 5G technology as a more affluent part of the city.
"We have an opportunity here to try and make sure that if we're bringing technology to cities, especially cities with diverse neighborhoods, that we're not leaving out the challenged neighborhoods as well," Strickland said.
The wireless industry says it's sensitive to the needs of cities, but also says it needs regulatory certainty as it deploys the next generation of wireless technology.
"Doing it on a city by city by city basis will simply slow us down," said Jaime Hastings, aa senior vice president external and state affairs for CTIA. "The U.S. is the leader in 4G LTE and we've got to maintain that leadership role when we move towards 5G."
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