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Gov. Wolf signed a bill to accelerate 5G infrastructure construction in PA

The law regulates small cell deployment, creating more consistent rules for the wireless signal boosters. Pittsburgh proponents say it will make Pennsylvania more competitive in the 5G race as the economy recovers from the pandemic.

The race to 5G is on. (Photo by Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns, used under a Creative Commons license)
Pennsylvania is one step closer to bringing 5G to all parts of the state.

On Wednesday, Governor Tom Wolf signed House Bill 1621 — the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act — into law, passing new regulations for the deployment of small cells. The small antennae are a big part of powering 5G. And streamlining their construction is a key step in building the necessary infrastructure for 5G, or fifth generation, wireless technology, proponents say.

The bill saw widespread support in Pennsylvania’s Senate and House of Representatives before reaching Wolf’s desk, moving ahead with a vote of 50-0 and 198-3, respectively. Pennsylvania is now the 32nd state in the country to pass a law involving regulations on small cell deployment at a state level, helping to resolve some of the inconsistencies in the approval processes and other operations across municipalities.

“It is very difficult and inefficient to develop networks at scale while complying with a patchwork of rules,” wrote Tom Musgrove, the government affairs manager for the Central Region at Crown Castle, in an email. “HB1621 creates a standard template on how to process small cell applications and creates predictable timeframes for a municipality to approve a small cell application while affording municipalities reasonable local controls.”

Right now, most of Pennsylvania operates on 4G wireless technology, often centered around cell towers and antennas that provide connection for a specific coverage area around that tower. While 4G was sufficient in its earlier days, there’s been a need for increased data as phones, tablets and other devices advanced. Now, if someone tries using data to stream music or a video in a 4G tower’s coverage area, that person might have trouble connecting if too many other devices are already using data provided through the tower. In other words, 4G’s network capacity is limited in today’s world.

5G fixes some of those issues with small cell nodes. Affixed to streetlights or buildings, these are mini towers that accommodate both wireless and fiberoptic connections to supplement existing cell towers. This dual connection not only allows for much faster network speeds and increased wireless density — a big step in starting to resolve the digital divide underscored by the pandemic — but also provides better connection for regions in a 4G tower’s coverage area that might have been initially blocked by hills or tall buildings. These improvements open the door to more efficient personal use of data in communities with 5G, and also to potential smart city technology, like improved traffic light controls, streetlights and — Pittsburgh’s favorite — autonomous vehicles.

A small cell installed on a Philadelphia streetlight. (Photo courtesy of Crown Castle)

A small cell installed on a Philadelphia streetlight. (Photo courtesy of Crown Castle)

Small cell deployment isn’t without controversy. Because of the volume of nodes needed for 5G infrastructure, many communities worry about disruptions to the cosmetic appearance of neighborhoods with nodes or potential disputes over zoning authority.

Balancing different stakeholder priorities on an individual level sometimes stalled the deployment process.

“Prior to the passage of HB 1621, small cell deployment was dependent upon the application process, timeframe and fee established by each individual municipality in the Commonwealth, resulting in no consistent approach to deployment,” Musgrove wrote.

The new law seems like it should alleviate most of those concerns, however. HB1621 leaves approval power in the hands of Pennsylvania’s municipalities by letting them process application fees from infrastructure providers. Those providers have to pay an application fee to the municipality in order to avoid added costs for local governments, and are also required to take the aesthetic layout of a neighborhood into account in their infrastructure design plan.

5G has long been touted as a big jobs and GDP booster for the United States. A February 2021 report from Boston Consulting Group estimated that it “will contribute $1.4 trillion to $1.7 trillion to US GDP, and create 3.8 million to 4.6 million jobs.” Streamlining the process to bring this technology to Pennsylvania will make the state more competitive in new business partnerships coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, argued Matt Smith, the President of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, which is an affiliate of the Allegheny Conference.

By streamlining and providing certainty in the permitting process across the Commonwealth, the new law will lead to greater 5G investment.

“Particularly as business and commerce increase their dependence on this resource, the availability of reliable connectivity is paramount to create an economy for all and to keep our state and region competitive,” he wrote in an email. “5G will revolutionize all aspects of digitization and dramatically improve the way we communicate. By streamlining and providing certainty in the permitting process across the Commonwealth, the new law will lead to greater 5G investment.”

Still, the time it took to get here leaves Pennsylvania a little behind, as the wireless industry’s biggest carriers turned their attention to states who enacted 5G legislation much sooner, Pittsburgh Tech Council SVP for Operations and Government Affairs Brian Kennedy wrote in an email.

While he said that many providers were ready to make Pittsburgh a leading city in 5G networks at first, “after years of patient, but ultimately non-productive discussions with local bureaucrats, the major carriers moved their investments to other cities. Those decisions involved millions of dollars of capital investments and can’t be easily undone.”

Because of those delays, Kennedy estimates that in the best case scenario, the Pittsburgh region might not see full 5G deployment until 2023. But, he countered, the huge amount of local job creation will be worth the wait, just as it was in the move from 3G to 4G a decade ago.

“Along the way, [that transition] created hundreds of thousands of jobs,” he wrote. “Looking forward, 5G is going to make 4G look like child’s play.”

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
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