Northeastern Indiana saw a strange development in the last days of April.
Local communities rushed to stop “small cell” devices from being placed along streets without their permission. Waterloo councilmen and other city officials around the state went so far as to meet and vote on a Sunday.
Depending on who you ask, they either:
• foiled a sneaky attempt by state legislators to force a plague of ugly, electronic boxes and towers on Indiana; or
• blocked the next wave of wireless technology.
It all has to do with the way your cellphone will work 2-3 years from now, if not sooner.
Until now, cellphones have received signals chiefly from large towers you can spot along the highways. But cellphone use is changing rapidly.
Experts say mobile data traffic will grow by seven times from 2016 to 2021. To handle all that traffic, the industry will move from the current 4G (fourth-generation) technology to 5G — expected to be 10 times faster.
Soon, our phones will get 5G signals from “small cell” devices attached to poles at street level. Each could have a range of less than a mile, so cities might have dozens to hundreds of the transmitters. One source predicts 450,000 will be installed nationwide by 2020.
Small-cell equipment ranges from shoebox-size devices, mounted on poles for streetlights and traffic signals, to towers up to 120 feet tall.
Cellphone companies would like one set of rules nationwide to make it easy to install 5G. They’re aiming, at least, for consistent guidelines within each state. This is sparking battles everywhere.
At the end of 2016, Ohio’s legislature passed a 5G law in a sneak attack. It aims to prevent Ohio’s local governments from interfering with small-cell installations.
Indiana lawmakers operated much more openly, said Rep. Dave Ober, R-Albion. His committee held hearings on a 5G law and responded to concerns by making changes.
Hoosier legislators passed Senate Enrolled Act 213 on April 22, opening Indiana rights-of-way to small-cell structures.
It left a loophole for communities to pass right-of-way regulations by May 1. In response, Accelerate Indiana Municipalities (AIM), an association of Indiana cities and towns, spread the word in a message shouting, “MUST ACT NOW!”
In the last days of April, AIM estimates, at least 60-70 local governments declared that all new utility structures in all of their right-of-way areas must be placed underground unless they get waivers. (AIM had suggested protecting only “sensitive areas.”)
Ober called the response “irrational” and “really unfortunate.” Cities certainly won’t force all new power lines to be underground, for instance.
Ober said Senate Enrolled Act 213 does protect sensitive areas, such as historic districts and neighborhoods with buried utilities, from small-cell structures. It also limits the height of larger 5G structures.
“I would challenge anybody who thinks these things are hideous … take a stroll around Indianapolis and try and point them out,” Ober said. “Once they’re installed, you really don’t notice them.”
Ober said cities are “trying to regulate a technology that they don’t understand.”
Because of what cities and towns did, the Legislature will have to start over with small-cell rules in 2018, he added.
“We’ll do it differently, and we’ll try and get a compromise worked out well in advance of the session,” Ober said.
Which might not be so bad.
Intentionally or not, Indiana’s 5G law caught cities and towns by surprise. Waiting a year will give time for educating local leaders about 5G and finding solutions that both cell companies and Hoosiers can live with.