ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Alpharetta officials blasted state legislators for supporting a bill that would give utilities greater latitude in deploying fifth-generation wireless equipment in public right of way.
The pending legislation comes months after the city spent weeks and thousands of dollars in legal fees to draft an ordinance that would provide some protections against the industry’s installation of new 5G equipment. The fifth-generation technology rolling out across the country is expected to be 10 to 100 times faster than the current LTE network and will allow for the connection density to support billions of devices.
“[The legislation] basically shreds everything we did to protect our residents — and the right of way that they own,” a fuming Mayor Jim Gilvin said at the Jan. 18 City Council meeting. “I’m still baffled how the state has the gall to tell us what we should be doing with right of way that our residents pay for and maintain.”
As part of its effort to promote economic development in rural areas of the state, the 2019 Legislature is considering a number of bills that would smooth deployment of 5G wireless technology. Part of that legislation, specifically House Bill 184, provides the telecom industry with freer rein over where they can add the new equipment. That bill passed the House Feb. 14 by a vote of 170 to 1 and awaits action by the Senate.
Last fall, in an effort to protect itself in anticipation of the legislation, Alpharetta assigned a special attorney to study new federal guidelines on 5G deployment and to work with industry leaders to draw up new standards for placing equipment in the city’s public right of way.
Those standards, adopted by the City Council Nov. 12, allowed access to previously off-limits territory for the 5G deployment — street light or street light poles, for example. But the city was careful to prohibit adding equipment to pedestrian lights or any decorative poles. It also drew limits on the dimensions for boxes and the length of antennas.
The city’s attorney on the issue, Scott Hastey said the House bill “pretty much” overrides everything the city adopted to protect itself.
“I’m very frustrated by this,” Gilvin said. “We asked our state representatives to represent our constituents’ best interests.”
The mayor added that rural areas should be given the opportunity to advance economic development through the 5G rollout. But, he said, cities like Alpharetta that have taken the initiative to craft their own guidelines to accommodate the industry should be exempted from the legislation.
Council criticism gets heated
Councilman Ben Burnett said he saw this coming.
“I know how the special interest lobby works,” he said. “I know how people down there get elected. Unless you’re running for elected office and you need the support of your locally elected official…the only time you see them is if they’re running for Congress or on the back of a milk carton.”
Councilman Donald Mitchell was less diplomatic.
“I’m looking at one of our state representatives (whom he did not name), last year alone, he received $700 from the Realtor PAC, $1,000 from the contractor PAC, the affordable housing PAC, $500, the building PAC, $500,” Mitchell said. “This is no longer a state legislature that cares about the citizens of our state more than they care for the lobbying groups.”
State legislators respond
Contacted following the meeting, Speaker of the House Pro Tem Jan Jones (R-Milton) said it was new federal guidelines that went into effect Jan. 14 that overrode Alpharetta’s ordinance.
The legislation passed in the House, she said, strikes a balance between residents’ needs for next generation wireless broadband and cities’ desire to determine placement of equipment.
“Both matter greatly to me,” she said in a statement. “The overwhelming majority of Georgia cities support the bill because it allows local governments much more authority than recently enacted federal rules.”
Since January 14, Jones said, the city has been out of compliance with the new federal rules.
“The legislation I voted for provides safeguards that are not addressed in the FCC order,” she said.
Small cell technology delivers 5G services and employs antennae attached to utility poles. They are about the size of a small chair. They also reduce the need for additional cell towers of 200 feet or higher in our community.”
State Rep. Chuck Martin (R-Alpharetta) responded to the attack saying he had reached out to a City Council member on Feb. 8, the day the legislation was introduced, to seek feedback. He said he followed up Feb. 11 with the council member who has been running point on the issue but whom he did not name. Martin said he received a one-sentence text reply stating he was in a workshop retreat and was unable to speak.
Martin added that the House bill was supported by the Georgia Municipal Association, a group that represents the interests of Alpharetta and most, if not all, of the cities in Georgia.
“As a lifelong resident of Alpharetta, I am dishearten that two current council members chose a style of confrontation and accusation via the media and after the vote, rather than communicating with the legislative delegation directly and earlier,” Martin said. “My experience is that a confrontational style is not effective nor does it typically lead to a positive outcome for our citizens.”
Last Wednesday, two days following the council meeting, Martin said he spoke with City Administrator Bob Regus and, for the first time, received a list of specific concerns from the city attorney.
For its part, the city is seeking an exemption to the legislation. Moreover, in a memo issued by the city late last week, the city’s attorney goes so far as to argue the state legislation is unnecessary because the new federal rules already outline the parameters for accommodating 5G deployment.
“Yet, in the aftermath of this sweeping federal regulatory action,” the memo says, “the state seeks to preempt local governments from enforcing any aesthetic requirements whatsoever — the level of government that even the FCC agreed was best situated to exercise such authority.”
Alpharetta’s Mayor Gilvin said that Rep. Jones’ provides no factual basis for her claims.
“All I know, is that the right of way bill Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones supports would allow companies to install 50-foot tall poles in the front yard of every constituent she represents who lives on a public street as long as they can find an engineer to write a letter explaining that they had tried ‘in good faith’ to find a more suitable location,” Gilvin said.
This story was updated Feb. 22.