Who Will Control 5G Antennas: Municipalities or States?

Carl Weinschenk

There is unanimity that the coming age of 5G will require a massive influx of small antennas. Many of the frequencies used have physical characteristics that make this necessary. The macro cells that have done the job until now need to be supplemented.

The problem for the telecommunications companies is that following a variety of laws in a given state is inefficient. They much prefer statewide standards. On Sunday, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB649, a bill that would have set such standards:

There is something of real value in having a process that results in extending this innovative technology rapidly and efficiently. Nevertheless, I believe which the interest municipalities have in managing the rights of way requires a more balanced solution than the one achieve in this bill.

The San Francisco Chronicle makes two important points about the situation in California. It says that one of the reasons that municipalities opposed the bill was the per-antenna cap of $250. San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission said that such a limit would cost the city $33 million during the first decade. The story also suggests Brown’s veto is not the end of the story. The issue could resurface in Sacramento and/or at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).


City/state battles are going on elsewhere as well. The Tampa City Council earlier this month passed rules aimed at minimizing “visual clutter” of the new antennas, according to Tampa Bay Online. This spring, the state legislature passed legislation that gives it control of most aspects of small cell distribution. The story is complicated, but the sense is that the balance of power between the state and municipalities will be at issue as much as the antennas themselves.

Vernon Hills, Illinois, is also wearily eyeing the state government. The Chicago Tribune says that the village is “in a race to approve an ordinance regulating light pole-based cell phone antennas before Illinois legislators pass a law expected to be less restrictive next spring.”

The story describes what Verizon Wireless is proposing to Vernon Hills. The specter of what the state may ultimately do hangs over the negotiations:

Atkinson speculated that Illinois could approve a bill in the spring 2018 session and said the Vernon Hills policy and Verizon contract should be ready before then. He said the policy’s zoning component would need to go through a public hearing with the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The highest profile challenges to 5G are technical. However, inserting a layer of antenna between end-user devices and the macro cell towers across the country is a huge task. It will be interesting to see if states and municipalities can figure out a joint game plan and, if they do, who exerts more control. The veto by Jerry Brown in the bellwether state of California suggests that municipalities may have the upper hand – at least for now.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.


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