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Cities keeping a watch on 'small cell' towers bill

Robert Houk • Mar 14, 2018 at 12:00 AM

City and town leaders in Tennessee are being urged to keep an eye on a “small cell” transmission bill pending in the state General Assembly that advocates believe could infringe on a municipality’s authority over its rights of way.

Officials with CNX, a company that designs broadband master plans for municipalities across the nation, say it is an effort by the wireless industry to strip communities of local control over where and how small cell transmitters are located. Gina Hatchett, a research analyst for CNX, said last week Tennessee is not alone in facing such legislation. Currently, similar bills are pending in the legislatures of 14 states. A small cell bill has also passed both houses of the General Assembly in Illinois and has been sent to the governor’s desk for his signature.

“Small cell and net neutrality are being pushed by the wireless industry,” she said. “It’s the perfect storm to take control away from municipalities.”

The Wireless Infrastructure Association, which includes AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile among its members, is behind many of the cell bills now being debated in Tennessee and other states. The organization said it has “developed model legislation that encourages collocation on existing facilities and provides municipalities guidelines on how to develop their own wireless siting ordinances.”

The Federal Communications Commission defines small cell facilities as low-powered base stations that function like cell towers in a mobile wireless network. They typically are used to cover targeted indoor or outdoor zones.

In Tennessee, HB2279 and SB2504 are being sponsored by state Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland (with local Reps. John Holsclaw Jr., R-Elizabethton; Timothy Hill, R-Blountville; and Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough; listed as co-sponsors) and state Sen. Bill Ketron, R-Murfreesboro (with state Sen. Jon Lundberg signed on as a co-sponsor). The legislation addresses fee charges, application deadlines and rights of way design control of cell wireless facilities. Opponents of the legislation say it will lower the collocation fees for small cell facilities located on poles in the city’s rights of way, establishes a “shot clock” that require municipalities to sign off on the eligibility of small cell applications within 10 days and limits a city’s control over how a small cell facility should look.

While the current legislation exempts electric poles owned by public utilities from the measure, Hatchett said that doesn’t mean the bill couldn’t be amended at a later date to eliminate that exception. She said that is happening now in Virginia.

Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said last week the city has a lease agreement with BrightRidge for its street lights, so he doesn’t think the small cell legislation — as written today — will signifcantly impact the city.

“Most utility poles in Johnson City are owned by BrightRidge, so any collocations would need to meet their decision standards and pay an appropriate attachment fee with conditions,” he said.

Pindzola said as wireless technology improves in the future, municipalities will “need to be adaptable to change its codes as those technologies are commercialized.” Still, he said the basic purpose of the city’s rights of way are to the “benefit of the public.” He said that is why municipalities now have a say in what appears in their rights of way.

“The local government can exercise over aesthetics,” Pindzola said. “Any state legislation that overrides that local authority is arrogant.”

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