Legislation that passed the N.C. House Tuesday would smooth the way for wireless providers to upgrade to faster 5G service, but the bill prompted concerns that it strips local governments of control and could pose health concerns.
Most cell phones currently run on 4G networks, but the wireless industry is working to increase speeds with 5G – or Fifth Generation – technology in the coming years. Instead of building traditional cell phone towers, that technology can be mounted on utility poles, street lights and other locations on public property.
House Bill 310, which passed in a 105-6 vote Tuesday, has backing from the wireless industry and other business groups and would set a standard regulatory process for installing the infrastructure, pieces of which are known as “small cells” and “distributed antenna systems.” A number of other states are considering similar legislation this year, but the technology isn’t expected to go into use until 2020.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jason Saine of Lincolnton, said the measure is “critical for our state to move forward and remain competitive” as new technology is developed.
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The bill would allow local governments to charge fees for wireless companies that want to install the technology along public streets and on existing infrastructure that cities and towns control. But the bill would limit governments’ ability to deny the permits, requiring them to cite one of several acceptable reasons for denial, such as appearance standards and spacing rules.
“This bill uses the strong hand of government to require cities to do certain things,” said Rep. Verla Insko, a Chapel Hill Democrat. She voted for the bill but said she hopes it’s amended before a final vote expected on Thursday.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, said her city’s leaders are opposed to the bill because it would limit their control. She said the “small cells” could be placed on public schools, hospitals or in residents’ front yards, because most properties have a public right-of-way between homes and streets.
Insko and Harrison both referred to studies that indicate possible links between radiation from wireless technology and health problems such as brain tumors. “I’ve found a lot of questions raised and no definitive information that this is safe,” Insko said.
Harrison urged her colleagues to take more time to develop regulations. “It does look like 5G technology is not immediately before us; it’s years away,” she said. “It seems like we have time to study this before we move to take away cities’ powers.”