In the final days of Ohio’s legislative session lawmakers passed Senate Bill 331 (SB 331) to regulate pet stores in the state, and to the discontent of many it featured a measure that will limit the ability of local government to negotiate the installation of small cell antennas (small cells) and wireless antennas on street lights, utility poles, and traffic lights. That provision was added in the 11th hour with little discussion or debate.
“Small cells” is an umbrella term used to describe picocells, femtocells, microcells, and other radio wave technology. Small cell networks are made up of a system of units that are attached to fiber-optics at key access points, and use licensed and unlicensed spectrum to provide wireless broadband service. The units are smaller in size and range than other broadband deployment devices– such as cell towers– and can provide service for anywhere from 10 meters to over a kilometer. However, they can still be quite large, creating the potential for both safety and aesthetic concerns.
Small cells are often used in cities to provide outdoors wireless service in parks and other public areas, as well as to connect residents and businesses. Deploying small cells is an attractive option for urban and rural areas, as they are often significantly less expensive and less disruptive to install than larger macro cell sites. Small cells will likely be the best option for continuing to improve wireless access in urban areas without installing the larger antennas that are often opposed by local residents, but that doesn’t mean local governments should be prohibited from safeguarding installation.
Under SB 331, which was pushed by AT&T, municipal officials in Ohio will have 90 days to approve or deny a service provider’s request to attach small cell to existing structures, or erect a new pole for it. Advocates of SB 331 say that this will streamline the deployment of telecommunication services in Ohio, but opponents argue that it comes at a steep cost. The bill will limit local authority to regulate rent, zoning, maintenance issues, and will not allow enough time to conduct environmental impact studies or consider public opinion before approving or rejecting the application.
Cities throughout Ohio, such as Oxford, passed resolutions earlier this year that aimed to streamline small cell deployment without taking away local control, leading city leaders to argue that SB 331 is an unnecessary stripping of power. Opponents have also argued that the bill is in violation of the state’s Home Rule principles outlined in the state constitution. Representative Mike Duffey (R-Worthington), who voted against the bill, said that the small cell measure had not been debated enough, and that superseding local government without further consideration would be problematic. “You can have these around schools, churches, people’s front yards,” Rep. Duffey said. “There is not a limit on the number on a utility pole … or how low or high they are going to be.”
Advocates of the small cell measure in SB 331 originally put forward much more problematic language that would have sharply limited municipal authority. After much debate with public interest groups, including the Ohio Municipal League and the Ohio Municipal Electric Association, legislators ultimately adopted a bill with less restrictive language.
Wireless deployment stands to be a major area of policymaking at the federal, state, and local level in 2017. Policymakers will be working on small cells, 5G, and zoning rights. Some of our members are developing models for how local governments can both preserve their historic role of managing the rights-of-way, and speed deployment of these new technologies in an expedited and responsible manner. But there is concern that efforts by some large carriers, including AT&T and Sprint, in state legislatures will both limit local authority over this issue and make negotiation for future mutually agreeable solutions more difficult.
If you hear of similar legislation being considered in your state, please contact us.