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Small cell tower compromise moves ahead

May 18th, 2017

— An industry-backed proposal to limit local regulation of small cell tower installation is moving ahead in the North Carolina House, but the latest version preserves some local oversight.

House Bill 310, Wireless Communications Infrastructure Siting, would allow the wireless industry to mount the arrays, which are similar to booster antennas, on public structures in the right of way, like utility poles. The arrays could be as large as 6 cubic feet – twice the size of the Federal Communications Commission’s current guidelines – although backers point out the FCC is still in the process of rule-making on that issue.

Wireless companies say the arrays are necessary to bring 5G speeds to North Carolina. ATT lobbyist Trey Rabon told the House Energy and Utilities Committee on Thursday that mobile data usage has increased 250,000 percent over the past decade.

“This is critical technology as we see a preponderance of data growing across our network,” Rabon said.

Sprint lobbyist Thomas Moore said wireless providers will spend billions of dollars upgrading infrastructure over the next few years, and the legislation would encourage them to invest more of it in North Carolina.

“This is going to create a lot of jobs,” Moore said. “It’s also going to create a lot of opportunity to use this technology in jobs.”

Sponsor Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, said education, health care and public safety would all benefit from faster and more pervasive broadband, adding that it will enable smart-grid and “smart city” technology as well.

Earlier versions of the measure would have banned cities from exercising zoning or other authority to deny a permit for an array. After what Saine termed “intensive negotiations,” the compromise version out Thursday would give local governments more say in the matter, from zoning and design standards to community aesthetics.

“Cities have a right to rule their areas as well,” Saine said “We’ve tried to bring everyone to a happy place.”

The North Carolina League of Municipalities had originally opposed the bill, but spokeswoman Erin Wynia said its position is now neutral, although she referred to “outstanding questions about the public benefit that will accrue to taxpayers for allowing these companies to use the public right of way.”

Several citizens urged the committee to either defeat the bill or turn it into a study.

Mary Anne Tierney, representing advocacy group Environmental Health Trust, told the committee that microwave radiation is known to cause cancer and said the frequency that 5G arrays will use is “millimeter-wave radiation,” which she said could burn skin.

“Ugly small cell towers will irradiate most every home in North Carolina, including yours, with millimeter-wave radiation 24/7 without your understanding or consent,” Tierney told lawmakers.

Moore, the Sprint lobbyist, responded that a study by national industry group CTIA found the radiation that would be emitted from small cell towers “is less than a laptop and less than a cordless phone.”

Laura Combs, a private citizen, echoed Tierney’s health concerns.

“I don’t think most citizens realize what’s coming. We’re going to have millions of these 5G towers. It will change the landscape,” Combs told lawmakers. “The private citizens and what happens in their home needs to be considered.

“You will hear a whole bunch of pushback on this,” Combs predicted. “Please do a study bill. Please stop and think.”

Rep. Jeff Collins, R-Nash, responded by citing two peer-reviewed, non-industry studies by European researchers that found no connection between wireless device radiation and cancer.

“This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who understands radiation,” Collins added.

The bill passed easily on a bipartisan voice vote and now goes to the House Finance Committee.

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