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VOL. 133 | NO. 56 | Monday, March 19, 2018

Small Cell Legislation Advancing, But Rural Options More Limited

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – Unable to get cell-phone service at a football game in Nashville or Knoxville? Can’t send a text from a Broadway honky tonk or Beale Street blues bar? Wondering how autonomous cars will ever work?

(shutterstock.com)

Legislation making its way through the Tennessee General Assembly is designed to set up the structure for investment in small cells, enabling the creation of a mobile broadband infrastructure that will take the state to the next generation of wireless communication: 5G.

“It’s going to transform the world as we currently know it. We’re expecting speeds anywhere from 30 to 50 percent faster as far as connectivity is concerned,” says state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican who is sponsoring the legislation. “It opens up that bandwidth for all the data, everything that we’re doing from texting to telemedicine to even autonomous vehicles.”

Development of 5G infrastructure leading to Smart Cities and what is called the Internet of Things is expected to be an economic boon to Tennessee, as well, leading to billions of dollars in investment statewide.

The legislation carried by Ketron in the Senate and Rep. William Lamberth in the House provides a manual of sorts for providers to work with local governments on small-cell installation in public rights-of-way, as well as placement on utility poles, in addition to maintaining aesthetics and protecting historic districts, according to a Senate statement.

Ketron calls 5G deployment “the secret sauce” for self-driving cars, which need a constant signal with no down time, and digital health care. Other benefits include better service for bridge sensors and other types of infrastructure in addition to higher-efficiency energy grids.

It’s also expected to allow people to download movies, games and other large files in only a second, one of the biggest attractions for entertainment purposes.

Lamberth, a Portland Republican, believes the legislation is an “important” technological step for Tennesseans because of the prevalence of cell-phone use, not just for phone calls but for engaging in social media and using email.

The legislation ensures local governments retain control while putting a framework in place so the technology can be “deployed in a timely manner,” Lamberth says.

Too often, because of the way cell towers work, people in densely-populated areas lose use of their cell phones and other technological devices.

“I just want to make sure folks will be able to use their cell phones when they’re at Titans Stadium in the middle of a football game in case, for some reason, they have a family emergency or they need to get some information, or simply for their convenience,” Lamberth says.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, a Nashville Democrat, isn’t quite as excited about the legislation, though he hasn’t been following it closely.

“We have to avoid the temptation in the Legislature to decide every question that affects the local governments, and I think it’s important we do our best to try to preserve local policy-making authority,” Yarbro says.

Working toward agreement

Thus, lobbyists with AT&T and other major Internet providers have been working with lawmakers, electric cooperatives, utilities, counties and cities during the legislative session to ferry the bill to passage. It recently made its way through the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. It’s to be considered March 20 in the Finance, Ways & Means Committees of both the House and Senate.

Initially, public entities wanted to charge as much as $2,500 for companies to attach a small cell to electric poles or other structures, according to Ketron. But the amount has been negotiated to $100 per attachment, and he believes cities will “embrace it.”

In addition, a $1 billion fiscal note, the estimated cost for the state, was removed, in addition to another $400,000 cost for hiring people within the Tennessee Department of Transportation to handle the matter. Ketron said the bill will wind up being “revenue neutral” and shouldn’t cost the state a thing.

The legislation also requires internet companies to abide by local guidelines for electric poles, downtown historic district aesthetics such as those in Murfreesboro and Franklin. But some municipalities still aren’t head over heels about the bill.

In fact, electric cooperatives, cities and counties, are neutral on the legislation. And it has taken a good deal of effort even to reach that point.

“Metro Nashville government understands and appreciates the need for small technology and the benefits it can have to customers and economic development opportunities,” said Michael Cass, spokesman for the Nashville mayor’s office. “At the same time, there is a real need to protect the aesthetics of our neighborhoods and keep our sidewalks free of clutter.”

Nashville has worked through the Tennessee Municipal League to negotiate an amendment reducing “visual clutter” within city rights-of-way and to increase attachment fees and application processing fees to trim the “negative financial impact on the city,” Cass said.

Several attempts were made to reach TML officials, but no calls were returned.

Memphis isn’t taking an official stance on the bill, according to Kyle Veazey, spokesman for the mayor’s office.

But even though the city appreciates the work by all parties to get to this point, “we still do have some concerns as it relates to pre-emption” of local rules and ordinances, Veazey said.

The Tennessee Electric Cooperative says 5G may offer high speeds, but it has a limited range. The small-cell boxes will have to be strategically placed every few hundred feet.

“Because of this, we don’t anticipate it will ever see widespread use outside of densely populated areas,” says Trent Scott, spokesman for the organization. “The economics of deploying current 5G technology in sparsely populated areas are going to be a challenge.”

Another downfall is that cell phones from previous generations aren’t expected to function in a 5G world. Thus, Ketron warns people not to buy new cell phones until the new information highway is built.

Lamberth and Ketron, though, point out wireless networks are at capacity and cell-tower construction can prove cumbersome, requiring land near homes and businesses.

The lawmakers also say recent history is on their side with 14 states passing legislation to make small-cell investment easier and another 19 considering similar bills this year.

Big bucks involved

In both Nashville and Memphis, for instance, 5G investments are expected to create more than 6,000 jobs, grow the gross domestic product by about $1 billion, bring in a network investment of some $530 million and bolster the smart grid and transportation systems with benefits of more than $371 million, according to a report by Accenture Strategy. All told, in Tennessee, 5G is expected to create more than 16,000 jobs and lead to a $1 billion investment that will grow the state GDP by $3 billion.

AT&T spokesman Joe Burgan points out 40 legislators are joining Ketron and Lamberth as co-sponsors on the legislation.

“Constant growth in use of wireless devices like smart phones and tablets, along with the explosion of new applications for everything from mobile banking and real-time traffic monitoring to tele-health and distance learning, results in a massive amount of data that communications networks must handle,” Burgan says in an email statement.

AT&T’s wireless network has grown more than 250,000 percent in the last 10 years, and other providers are seeing the same type of demand, he says.

Building network capacity and laying the foundation for future technologies are a necessity for 5G and smart cities, Burgan says.

“That future will depend on robust network capabilities to support things like autonomous vehicles – applications that once seemed like science fiction but soon will be business-as-usual for any state with a vibrant economy,” he says.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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