Verizon and its infrastructure partner Crown Castle have settled a year-long legal battle with Doylestown, Pennsylvania over 5G wireless hardware, agreeing to adjust their hardware deployment plans and share revenues with the town. The settlement was reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer today, illuminating local challenges that cellular carriers continue to face as they race to roll out next-generation wireless technology across large territories.
Although 5G is just beginning to receive mainstream attention, carriers have spent years laying the groundwork for 5G network upgrades, including plans to deploy “small cells” required for higher-speed cellular service. Small cells can be as small as a laptop or as large as a pizza box, and are generally mounted on utility poles 15 to 20 feet in the air. While well-known carriers including Verizon and AT&T pay for the small cells, infrastructure companies such as Crown Castle actually install and manage the hardware across multiple poles.
According to the report, Crown Castle reached out to Doylestown in 2014 with preliminary installation plans on Verizon’s behalf, ultimately submitting applications for 44 initial small cells in October 2016. The borough balked at the overwhelming collection of documents submitted by Crown Castle and denied the applications. Crown Castle responded with state and federal lawsuits.
Under the settlement, Crown Castle is cutting its installation to 34 small cells, relocating hardware that would have gone in front of historic landmarks, and decoratively obscuring some cells. The company is also submitting to another permitting process — delaying the cells’ installation by several months — and will share revenues so Doylestown can recoup its stated $150,000 in costs over time.
The settlement is noteworthy because it illustrates the types of arrangements and expenses that carriers are managing during their “nationwide” 5G rollouts. Instead of driving trucks through Pennsylvania and installing new hardware on existing or new poles, Crown Castle needs to negotiate local approvals and pay for permits, sometimes including legal expenses. Since Doylestown’s 8,300 residents represent only 0.065 percent of the state’s population, reaching agreements with everyone could take years.
On the other hand, citizens across the country have expressed both aesthetic and safety concerns about the small cells. Some Doylestown residents were concerned about a visual impact on “the borough’s Norman Rockwell charm” and “artsy” homes, while “others feared for their health with intensive 5G wireless services zapping them.” While both carriers and the FCC have quietly downplayed any 5G-specific health concerns, they have openly acknowledged that there’s some merit to the visual ones.
Calling for statewide legislation to smooth the rollouts, Pennsylvania state representative Robert Godshall said that there are over 2,500 municipalities in Pennsylvania, each with separate zoning rules and procedures, making town-by-town battles like Doylestown’s impractical. The state legislature is considering a bill that would let companies install small cells on existing utility poles and traffic lights with minimal oversight, paying $25 to $100 per cell permit. But the bill hasn’t passed yet, and 5G rollouts are already underway.
Similar legislation is under consideration across more than a dozen states, as the FCC has opted to stay out of the local/state zoning disputes unless it deems its intervention necessary. To speed 5G deployments and win “the 5G race,” the federal agency voted to dramatically reduce nationally required 5G tower approvals back in March. Verizon and AT&T subsequently announced partnerships with handfuls of cities to launch 5G services before the end of this year.