MONTGOMERY — Wireless carriers, Alabama city leaders and cable companies are still trying to find common ground in creating statewide legislation to regulate 5G cell cellular infrastructure.
At a joint Small Cell Wireless Technology Committee meeting last week, parties accused the other of not coming to the table to negotiate possible legislation. Without a compromise, 5G won't be available in much of Alabama.
“I’ve committed to trying to work with all parties as best as we can, but they have to be reasonable,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News.
Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon are urging lawmakers to create a statewide standard for deploying small cell technology. They want protection from municipalities' high fees and more access to city rights of way.
Representatives with municipalities say they're afraid of a far-reaching bill that would take away their constitutional rights over their property.
Alabama cable companies want to make sure the small cell technologies are treated in the same way cable is in regards to negotiating fees and location.
Orr sponsored a regulation bill that ultimately failed in the 2019 regular session. He and Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, are both on the committee and say they want legislation all parties can agree on.
Orr is worried that if a compromise is not reached soon, Alabama could be missing out on some major investments.
“I see this as a public good, that the public is being denied in most places in Alabama. I’d like to see some kind of an agreement reached and this enhanced cellular service be offered all across the state,” Orr said.
Waggoner, the powerful Rules Committee chairman, said he wants to see legislation passed in the 2020 session.
5G, Small Cell
The term 5G, which stands for ”fifth generation,” is the latest in wireless technology. It 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 cellphone towers and disperse it locally.
“Small cells” are about the size of two stacked rolls of paper towels. Providers want to place them on utility poles on public-owned property.
Orr’s Senate Bill 264 would have mandated a procedure by which municipalities would have to process requests from providers to gain access to public rights of way. In Orr’s bill, fees to use of an existing utility pole to put a small cell receiver would be capped at $250 per year. In a proposed substitute bill, the League of Municipalities suggested a $900-per-pole fee.
Orr’s bill also laid 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.
Under Federal Communications Commission's standards issued last year, reoccurring fees that could happen annually are capped at $270. One-time fees, like for applications, are capped at $500 for the first five and $100 for every subsequent application. If a provider wants to come in and build a standalone small cell, that’s capped at a one-time $1,000 fee.
The FCC order also puts in place a timeline in which projects have to be fulfilled once a completed application is submitted. The municipality has 60 days to approve an application for an attachment, and 90 days for a new build application.
Orr said he is still waiting to hear from the Legislative Services Agency on an opinion over the FCC guidelines and whether the fees are required or just recommended before he writes the new legislation.
Multiple different representatives from Alabama cities said at the meeting Wednesday they were concerned about the FCC’s timeline in accepting applications.
Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling said at the meeting that the timeline is sometimes not feasible for cities that have limited personnel or resources to approve dozens of applications that may come in.
“Our concern is that some of the FCC regulations have already limited some of our input, and the gist of the proposed Senate bill seems to be that carriers could swamp us with requests, and the default position would be that if we didn’t respond within a quick time frame they could build where they want to without our input,” Bolling said.
Another sticking point with cities is that they think they should be able to set their own cap on fees to rent space on their rights of way or when installing a new pole.
"Those fees are based upon the cost of regulation, which involves personnel from our building department or electrical inspectors, our engineers, our planning officials, all of these have a stake hold or interest in what happens in our rights of way," Jeff Downes, city manager for Vestavia Hills, said.
"In addition, the ability for infrastructure to be placed in the right of way, regardless of other rules that may be out there, there is a fairness factor of what the industry should pay for rent because they are utilizing the right of way for their private benefit," Downes said.
Orr agrees municipalities deserve control over their rights of way, but thinks they are using the situation to make more money.
“I understand the need for local governments to control rights of ways, but I also don’t believe this ought to be an opportunity to attempt to extract the maximum amount of dollars when it comes at the expense of what I define as a public good,” Orr said. “I don’t believe that industries need to be subsidized or get a lower cost; they ought to pay something and pay a reasonable amount.”
Downes says it's not about the money for Vestavia Hills but just about making sure they are paid at fair market value.
"We’re not trying to hold the technology hostage with the desire to make more money, that’s never been the case for us," Downes said. "We just want fairness. If other cities are being paid a certain amount then why shouldn’t we."
Downes explained Vestavia Hills charges $500 for the one-time application fee and was charging an annual licensing fee of $500 per installation, but lowered it to $270.
Providers say they are fine with paying the mandated fees provided by the FCC, but do not think it’s reasonable to ask them to negotiate every single application with every city in the state.
Beth Cooley, senior director of state legislative affairs at CTIA, a U.S. wireless communications trade association, said providers don’t have the resources to spend that much time for every small cell application.
“We have limited capital budgets that we plan in advance, however much for each company and what will happen is, it will go to other states,” Cooley said. “It’s going to go to the path of least resistance.”
Cleo Washington, director of legislative affairs for AT&T, said several attempts have been made to meet with the League of Municipalities to come up with a compromise.
“There have been several efforts made during the session," Cooley said. "We have reached out to all entities like we promised we would. Unfortunately, we have not had the opportunity to sit down with the League of Municipalities.”
League Deputy Director Greg Cochran told ADN they were surprised to hear this. Hed said municipal officials have met with providers in the past 18 months but requests by cities for possible legislation were still not being met.
“On numerous occasions before, during and after the 2019 legislative session, our team has recommended several changes to their proposed legislation,” Cochran said. “While they did make a few changes we suggested, those changes were non-essential, and the legislation they are proposing still has several major concerns as it pertains to the authority of the public rights of way.”