The General Assembly is expected to take up a bill this session that would reduce local regulations on placing small-scale wireless antennas, commonly called “small cells,” on existing or new poles in the public right of way. Supporters of such a bill say it would ensure high-speed internet access to rural Georgia.

Such a statewide bill is supported by the small-cell industry, but some local officials say such legislation would strip cities of local control and clutter the cities’ right of way with ugly poles and boxes, while financially benefiting the wireless industry giants.

A small cell node installed at the top of an existing light pole near the Georgia State Capitol. (Crown Castle)

“We don’t need Georgia to come in and offer a corporate giveaway to the small-cell industry at the expense of Brookhaven and of quality of life and safety of our citizens,” Brookhaven City Attorney Chris Balch said.

Brookhaven’s City Council in December approved its own small-cell legislation written by Balch with input from representatives from the small cell industry. The ordinance puts restrictions on the size of small-cell “nodes” to be attached to poles as well as charges significant fees for access to the city’s right of way.

Kimberly Adams is the Government Relations Manager for the South Area for Crown Castle. Crown Castle is the country’s largest provider of wireless technology that owns many of the cell towers and fiber infrastructure used by companies like AT&T and Verizon.

She worked with Brookhaven on its ordinance and said both parties made compromises. But a state bill would eliminate having to meet different regulations in different cities and simplify the process to getting high-speed internet access across the state, she said.

“Our goal is to help ensure residents and businesses stay connected, and to that end we support state frameworks that create a predictable process with reasonable fees to streamline small cell deployments,” she said in a written statement.

Sandy Springs was set to discuss small-cell technology recently but withdrew the item from the City Council agenda. Spokesperson Sharon Kraun said the city is working with the Georgia Municipal Association on the topic.

Mayor Rusty Paul denounced last year’s bill as being part of an “assault on local government.” But the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Steve Gooch (R-Dahlonega), said his legislation would actually give more control to cities than they currently have.

Gooch prefiled another broadband internet bill in December, but could not be reached for comment for this story.

The GMA is working with cities like Sandy Springs, county governments and the telecom industry to draft a bill regulating small-cell technology. The main priority is to encourage the installation of small cell technology on existing infrastructure rather than putting up new poles for the new technology, said GMA spokesperson Kelli Bennett.

“This process is more cost-effective for the providers and is the least invasive in the public right of way,” she said in a written statement.

The GMA is also advocating the legislation provide protections to residential neighborhoods and historic districts and also that different fees need to be charged based on a local government’s size and population, she said.

The Dunwoody City Council approved in 2015 a small-cell ordinance limiting the height and size of nodes and is watching closely what happens on the issue at the Capitol as part of its 2019 legislative priorities. The Atlanta City Council is considering legislation on its small cell fee structure to note they are subject to the Federal Communications Commission rulings.

A new pole with a small cell node located behind the Brookhaven-Oglethorpe MARTA Station. (Crown Castle)

Gooch’s bill last year was pitched as rapidly expanding broadband internet access — and all of the business opportunity that comes with it — to underserved areas of rural Georgia.

But there are no customers in rural Georgia, Balch said, and he said such a bill is purely a power grab by the massive wireless industry to “get something for nothing.”

“If there was a significant market to deploy in those [rural] areas, they would already be there,” Balch said.

Adams acknowledged small cells are currently predominantly located in cities with dense populations because small cells require fiber.

Brookhaven’s ordinance determined the fair market value for use of city right of way is $1,000 for each wireless antenna, or small cell node. Other fees in the Brookhaven ordinance range from a $500 application fee to a $300 fee to install a new pole or replace a pole.

Last year’s state legislation only allowed cities to charge $20 for a new pole per year.

Brookhaven’s decision to move forward with its own ordinance was in part to send a message to the General Assembly that local municipalities can work with the wireless industry to reach a compromise bill that fits the needs of the community, Balch said.

“We worked very hard to come up with something both sides can live with and believe it something that can be replicated across the state,” Balch said.

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.