The General Assembly adjourned Monday without a clear resolution to how communities and telecommunication companies should work together to deploy advanced wireless technology.
The Senate and House committees assigned to review a pair of dueling bills on the extent that local governments may control the placement and aesthetic of small facilities that will carry the fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network, punted and sent the stakeholders to an informal “summer study” period. What form that study will take, however, is unknown.
“That is still very much unclear. Based off of prior years, when bills we’ve been tracking have gone to interim studies, they’ve taken different shapes and sizes,” said Bill Jorch, manager of government relations and research at the Maryland Municipal League.
A summer study is generally less formal than a task force, which has a defined scope and results. Sometimes the committees that assign the study are involved, but that is not guaranteed, he said.
“We’ve received no formal direction on the interim study,” Jorch said on Thursday.
The Maryland Municipal League’s sole legislative priority in 2019 was to continue to allow local governments to control the use of public rights of way and enforce local zoning laws during the deployment of the 5G network.
Last year, its members and the Maryland Association of Counties tried to negotiate legislation with the telecommunication companies — such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint — to guide statewide deployment of the small cell facilities. However, the groups were unable to reach a resolution, which led to two widely divergent bills being submitted during the 2019 session.
“We are disappointed that Maryland has not yet joined the more than 20 other states — including Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia — that have passed small cells legislation. Our goal remains to work with leaders across Maryland to deliver the wireless services their constituents demand today and to lay the foundation for 5G and other innovations,” AT&T spokesman Daniel Langan said by email on Thursday.
A statewide law governing how small cell facilities are to be installed, however, may not be necessary, said Natasha Mehu, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties.
“I think, from our perspective, we don’t think there needs to be a statewide bill,” Mehu said.
Local governments are already working with telecommunication companies to install wireless facilities in ways that make sense for the community, she said. An estimated 600 small wireless facilities have been deployed in Baltimore City alone.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a national order in September 2018 mandating that all applications to install a small cell facility on a new pole be processed with 90 days and any co-location of a facility on a pole or structure with one already on it, be processed in 60 days, Jorch said.
Due to the federal order, local governments cannot ban the technology, Mehu said. Many also do not want to ban the technology, which promises to improve broadband service to an area.
No place yet has 5G capabilities — instead the existing 4G network is carried by facilities — but the infrastructure upgrades will eventually allow areas to access the 5G network, Mehu said. The association is therefore continuing to work with each county to set its own rules for placement and aesthetics of the facilities, so that when the first application to install one arrives, the jurisdiction is prepared to respond.
“Overall, our members are supportive of that approach,” she said.
Advocates for the wireless industry, however, may still be looking for statewide guidance on how to build out the technology in 2020.
Arturo Chang, state government affairs counsel for the Wireless Infrastructure Association, said he would continue to work this year on a statewide framework to allow the wireless industry to deploy small cell technology.
“These summer studies will provide a venue for all relevant stakeholders to meet and resume discussions on this very important issue,” Chang said.
Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.