How One Town Took on 4G and 5G antennas

by Bob Fernandez 8/23/18. The original Philadelphia Inquirer is here.

When Verizon Communications Inc. proposed dozens of small wireless cells along streets in Doylestown, PA , the reaction was a defiant no.

  • Doylestown Residents thought the boxy equipment that sprouted five-foot antennas on traffic lights or telephone poles would mar the borough’s Norman Rockwell charm, along with the artsy aura of its Victorian homes.

  • Residents also opposed the well-documented health hazards that are created by intensive 4G and 5G wireless services that are planning to be installed close to homes and schools.

Other municipalities, including Lancaster, Abington and Haverford, have pushed back on small cells and forced some changes, as well..

Doylestown officials spent $150,000, held 10 public hearings and fought the small cell proposal in state and federal courts over more than a year, defending their right to say where the small cells would go — a David-vs.-Goliath tale of a small Pennsylvania town taking on a big corporation.

"We didn’t feel they had the right to come and do whatever they want," council president Jack O’Brien said Monday.

When Doylestown finally settled the case last month, the town won the right to reduce the number of poles as well as camouflage and relocate some of them. It also surprisingly won a 5 percent share of the revenues for the services Verizon or other companies sell through those cells, or a minimum of $750 a pole a year.

But the borough’s victory may be hard for other towns to replicate, as Telecom companies are canvassing Pennsylvania towns to locate thousands of new wireless cells for the new 4G and 5G high-speed mobile networks.

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would largely strip municipalities of zoning oversight when telecom companies seek permits for small cells on utility poles and traffic lights. If enacted, the measure would also set small fees — from $25 to $100 — for small cell permitting.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Farry, R-Langhorne, and the wireless industry say this new capacity will lead to innovation such as driverless cars, and many new jobs in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Twenty other states, including Ohio and Delaware, have passed similar legislation, backers say. But this effort will also entail installing 300,000 new small cells in cities and towns across the U.S. over the next three to four years.

In Pennsylvania, lines are being drawn between state lawmakers and wireless industry officials who want to make it easy to roll out 5G, and municipal officials who bemoan the loss of local control and dislike the Telecoms’ encroachment on their turf.

Rep. Robert W. Godshall, R-Hatfield, the chair of the consumer affairs committee, told municipal officials opposed to the measure that they had to get in line with the new technology during a hearing on Aug. 9. Wireless carriers can’t easily add small cells in a state with more than 2,500 municipalities, each with its own zoning rules and procedures, Godshall said. He added that towns and boroughs shouldn’t consider the new small wireless cells as new revenue sources for municipal budgets.

In Doylestown, wireless infrastructure firm Crown Castle approached borough officials in 2014. Crown Castle, with major operations in western Pennsylvania, installs and manages the small cells for wireless carriers. Doylestown officials say they were told that Verizon would use the new small cells and that Crown Castle also might lease the wireless capacity to other carriers. Crown Castle submitted the first dozen or so applications in October 2016. Karyn Hyland, the borough’s zoning officer, said the initial application for 44 small cells overwhelmed her small department with "boxes and boxes" of documents.

Facing persistent opposition, Crown Castle filed lawsuits in Bucks County and Philadelphia, challenging Doylestown’s ordinances and denials. Last month, the two sides settled the lawsuits. Under the terms, Crown Castle can put just 34 small cells in the town and has entered into a revenue-sharing agreement so that Doylestown can earn some money off the equipment to recoup its $150,000 in costs over several years. After that, the borough can earn some revenue from the small cells, making Crown Castle pay for the use of the right of way.

The cells won’t go up for several months as they go through a permitting process. When they do, borough manager John Davis said that Crown Castle agreed to relocate small cells in front of the historic Fountain House and Mercer Museum as part of the settlement.

It will also use decorative poles in places to camouflage the cells. "We put a lot of effort into it and we felt like we got something out of it," Davis said.