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Wireless Industry Lobbies States In Preparation For New Technology


The typical cell phone tower, a steeple of metal jutting out of the ground is one of those fixtures that is everywhere, so common they're barely noticed. They could be replaced soon if the wireless industry gets its way. We take a look in this week's All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: Picture small devices, lots of them, attached to power poles and street lights. That's what the industry wants. It's pushing legislation in at least 20 states to streamline permitting for these so-called small cell sites. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network reports from Olympia, Wash., where this has become a divisive issue.

AUSTIN JENKINS, BYLINE: The wireless industry says it plans to install a quarter of a million small cell sites nationwide in the coming years. These antennas will usher in the next generation of connectivity known as 5G. On 5G, a movie that now takes minutes to download will take just seconds.

BETH COOLEY: It sounds super sexy, and we hope that it is.

JENKINS: That's Beth Cooley with CTIA. It's a national trade group that represents the nation's wireless carriers. Earlier this year, Cooley told a panel of Washington state lawmakers that the industry needs broad access to publicly-owned property to roll out 5G technology.

COOLEY: Small cell technologies are generally installed on street furniture is what we call it, but utility poles, street lights, traffic signal poles. This is sweeping the country and very hypercompetitive amongst the cities and the states right now.

JENKINS: That's a message the wireless industry is delivering in state houses across the country this year from Washington to Colorado to Florida. In addition, the industry-backed American Legislative Exchange Council has passed a resolution calling on states to streamline the permit process for small cell technology. But that has cities and towns concerned. In Tacoma, Wash., Mayor Marilyn Strickland leads a visitor on a brief tour of a neighborhood known as Hilltop that's in transition.

MARILYN STRICKLAND: We welcome higher speeds. We're excited and enthusiastic about it. But at the same time there, has to be some respect for what we want here as a community.

JENKINS: She stops in front of a historic streetlamp.

STRICKLAND: Looking at it, it's definitely ornamental in nature. And it's meant to have banners hanging from it to promote different things.

JENKINS: Asked how she'd feel about a wireless antenna being affixed to that streetlamp...

STRICKLAND: Its purpose is not, in my opinion, to hold technology, it's to be decorative and to add to the aesthetic positive view of what Hilltop looks like.

JENKINS: In Washington state, the wireless industry is pushing legislation that would require cities and towns to allow small cell sites on publicly-owned poles lining city streets. The bill would also limit how much cities could charge wireless companies. And local governments could not dictate how the antennas look except in historic or themed districts. Republican State Senator Doug Ericksen is a sponsor of the bill.

DOUG ERICKSEN: Washington state right now has a terrible reputation for being a bad place to be able to deploy wireless.

JENKINS: Ericksen says next generation wireless technology means jobs and economic development, but he believes current local zoning and permitting standards stand in the way of rolling out faster wireless service.

ERICKSEN: We need to fix that so we can get those companies to bring the money here first and not last.

JENKINS: Back in Tacoma, Mayor Marilyn Strickland isn't just concerned about aesthetics and local control. She also wants to make sure small cell technology is deployed equally across poor and wealthier parts of her city.

STRICKLAND: We have an opportunity here to try and make sure that if we're bringing technology to cities, especially cities with diverse neighborhoods, that we are not leaving out the challenged neighborhoods as well.

JENKINS: The wireless industry says it's sensitive to the needs of cities but says what it really needs is regulatory certainty before it deploys this latest generation of wireless technology. For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."