Last February 12th, the Alabama House of Representatives, following the State Senate’s lead, passed. If signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey, these bills will streamline the deployment of 5G small cell units, aiding the deployment of the 5G network across the state.
The bill’s passage makes Alabama the 31st state to pass legislation designed to streamline the deployment of small cell technology. To reap the economic and consumer benefits of 5G, the remaining states should follow Alabama’s lead and pass legislation to ease deploying small cells’ regulatory burdens.
Despite the economic and consumer benefits, some towns and municipalities have erected significant barriers to the deployment of 5G. To preserve the economic and consumer benefits of 5G, 31 states passed small cell infrastructure bills that limit any municipality’s ability to delay deployment. These laws “limit the authority of local governments to decide where wireless small cell equipment can be installed in the right-of-way; limit the time for action on applications to install small cell equipment; and limit the amounts that can be charged for applications and use of the right-of-way.”
Compared to traditional 5G towers, sometimes known as macrocells, small cell units have several advantages. First, small cell units are significantly smaller than conventional towers, often just the size of a backpack. Traditional towers, on the other hand, can be up to 200 feet tall. The size of small cell units means that instead of erecting expensive towers, providers can affix them to “streetlights, utility poles, buildings, and other structures” already in existence. The small size of these units ultimately allows providers to deploy 5G faster and with more bandwidth in a more cost-efficient manner.
Additionally, the small size means these cells are easily concealed to “blend in with existing architecture and structures, thereby reducing the concerns some citizens may have about the aesthetics” of 5G equipment. Aesthetics is sometimes a consideration when citizens routinely oppose infrastructure in their communities based on their appearance.
Second, while traditional towers can provide consumers access to 5G over large land swaths, their signal can be interrupted by large buildings, sometimes making them impractical for use in large urban areas. Due to their size, small cells can be placed in areas where large towers cannot provide service, ensuring large cities can receive a strong signal. These small cells also add additional capacity to the 5G network. Without small cells, those in cities would not receive consistent 5G service in densely populated centers.
Despite the advantages of small cell towers, local municipalities have often imposed onerous regulations that make it difficult for providers to deploy the infrastructure. Before the FCC’s 2018 ruling, it was not uncommon for states and municipalities to impose excessive permit fees and create a burdensome permitting process that could stretch years. Despite the order, some cities, like Torrence in California, are still taking over six months to process applications and charging high permitting fees that don’t run afoul of the FCC’s rule. Additionally, California’s Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that municipalities can deny small cell permits for aesthetic reasons.
In opposing the deployment of small cells, municipalities often deny the state and its residents the benefits of 5G technology. For the broader economy, 5G is projected to create 4.5 million jobs and contribute over $1.5 trillion to the U.S. GDP. These benefits would not only be felt by tech hubs like Silicon Valley, but by every state. For consumers, 5G will provide virtually limitless services, such as better virtual healthcare, better gaming experiences, and enable other groundbreaking technologies like the Internet of Things.
These benefits are only attainable if state governments create an environment that facilitates small cell technology deployment. The passage of Alabama’s small cell bill is a step in the right direction for the arduous task of deploying 5G technology and ensures that the state can fully reap the economic and consumer benefits. Despite Alabama and thirty other states moving in the right direction, nineteen others have yet to pass legislation to facilitate the deployment of small cell 5G infrastructure. Failing to do so will not only deny them jobs and increased economic output, but it will restrict their consumer access to ultra-fast internet that will revolutionize their lives and other technologies.