New law could expand 5G’s reach in Pa.

By: - July 6, 2021 2:36 pm

A law that Gov. Tom Wolf signed last week likely will open Pennsylvania to the next generation of wireless internet and cell phone services, lawmakers and industry officials say.

The law, which passed the General Assembly quickly and quietly amid budget negotiations, takes one item off the Harrisburg to-do list that has lingered for years amid a debate between the communications industry, local governments, and the labor unions representing communications employees.

The finished product, said state Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver, is a compromise between all three groups that’ll balance predictable permitting, local control, and workplace safety.

“We knew this was a priority, and we didn’t have to start from zero because of the previous work done on 5G,” Marshall, who sponsored the legislation, told the Capital-Star.

Under previous law, municipalities could take months to approve a permit to build a new 5G tower, or install a 5G cell on an existing pole.

That uncertainty makes it hard for companies to invest in Pennsylvania, Tom Musgrove, a  lobbyist for Houston-based telecommunications firm Crown Castle, told the Capital-Star.

The law now gives municipalities 60 days to approve or deny a permit to add a 5G cell to an existing pole, and 90 days to approve or deny a permit for a new pole. If a local government doesn’t take action within that time, the permit is automatically approved.

“When we look at where Pennsylvania was a week ago, and where Pennsylvania is now, a week ago … [for] Crown Castle or other carriers, it would be challenging to consistently deploy in Pennsylvania,” Musgrove said.

But with the new law, telecom companies have a competitive advantage in Pennsylvania over its neighboring states.

Such an edge would be key, as Pennsylvania has lagged other states in 5G growth, according to the Pennsylvania Partnership for 5G.

The coalition includes such statewide business groups as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, medical giants such as University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Highmark, and the unions representing police and firefighters.

The partnership — in conjunction with Crown Castle — has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the General Assembly in recent years, according to state records.

“Pennsylvania has yet to tap into the truly transformative power of 5G, primarily because we haven’t advanced a legislative framework to deploy the infrastructure,” partnership spokesperson Ashley Henry Shook said in a Senate hearing on 5G in May.

While the new law will simplify things for telecoms firms, Dave Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, added that it will also help local governments regulate where 5G cells are installed.

While permit timelines were scatter shot under the old rules, telecoms firms like Crown Castle also were classified as public utilities, following a 2020 state Supreme Court ruling.

That classification means a company could place 5G poles anywhere within its right-of-way, without waiting for approval from a local government. Effectively, this means a firm could start building a nearly 50 foot antenna in someone’s backyard overnight with no notice to property owners.

That practice will end under the new law, Sanko said. Whatever right-of-way a company owns, whether above ground or under it, it will need to apply for a permit to build new 5G infrastructure. Local governments also can develop guidelines for new 5G poles that match local aesthetics.

“Quite frankly, anyone will tell you this is the most municipal-friendly 5G bill in the country,” Sanko told the Capital-Star.

Finally, communications firms must ensure that construction firms undergo safety training, are compliant with the state’s workers compensation law, and have a record of legal troubles to build and maintain 5G projects, a request from the unions representing electrical and communication workers.

With more people working remotely post-pandemic, Marshall and Sanko expressed hope that the new law would expand internet access across the state, allowing more people to take classes or see a doctor virtually.

“It’s not about ‘No, you can’t do it here,’” Sanko said. “Everybody wants it.”

The law passed the General Assembly with just three dissenting votes, all in the House. At least 25 states have approved legislation smoothing a path for 5G technology, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.