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Marjorie Parks, a kindergartner at Johnson Elementary

Rome prepares for small-cell wireless rollout expected to hit Georgia in waves

A state law streamlining the placement of small-cell wireless equipment goes into effect in just over two weeks.

Rome is moving to claim the few protections under its control, with plans to enact a local ordinance Sept. 23.

“Beginning Oct. 1, it’s open season on us as a community when these devices can start showing up in our right of way,” City Manager Sammy Rich said before a first reading last week of the document.

The new technology uses smaller, lower-power equipment than what is installed on communications towers. Sites are established every few blocks instead of every few miles.

Georgia’s law is a balance crafted over two years between the federal push to expand 5G wireless technology across the nation, and the local push-back against a proliferation of poles, antennas and other telecommunications equipment.

The most important thing it does, local officials say, is incentivize the various providers to co-locate their equipment instead of installing separate facilities.

It also grants some protections for historic districts and certain residential areas — allowing local officials to shift the proposed site of new poles within a 100-foot radius and to require concealment or decorative poles.

“We tried to protect aesthetics to the extent of the law,” Rich said about the ordinance.

“Can they run equipment right down Broad Street?” Commissioner Bill Irmscher asked.

“Only on poles and lines that already exist,” Rich said.

Floyd County Special Projects Manager Bruce Ivey said county commissioners plan to enact a similar ordinance covering the unincorporated area, but they’re not viewing Oct. 1 as a deadline.

There’s not as much leeway for regulation in less-populated areas, he said, and he expects Floyd to be a lower priority for providers like AT&T and Verizon, who are ready to launch.

“They’re going to fill up Atlanta; they’re going to fill up Augusta, Columbus and Macon,” Ivey said. “Then they’ll do the next tier of cities like Athens, Cartersville and maybe Rome.”

Ivey said the law does allow local governments to reject a small-cell permit if it will interfere with any big road or public works projects, “but we don’t have anything like that pending.”

The Federal Communications Commission caps permitting fees. However, City Commissioner Evie McNiece — who was involved in the lengthy negotiations — said the new state law also allows for an annual right-of-way usage fee and yearly increases starting in 2021.

In Rome, the annual fee will start at $40 a year. The city ordinance also sets permitting fees at $100 to $250 to co-locate equipment and the maximum-allowed $1,000 for a new pole.

The provisions are based on a model ordinance suggested by the Georgia Municipal Association and Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

“I tweaked it for Rome,” City Attorney Andy Davis told the board. “Our ordinance and Cobb County’s are going to be pretty close. We’ve been working together.”

The state law came as the FCC passed a declaratory rule and order pre-empting both state and local control over small-cell deployment.

A number of provisions are expected to be challenged, but Georgia negotiators — GMA, ACCG, lawmakers and telecom companies — agreed that it likely sets a basic framework for the national roll-out.

“Everybody wants their device,” Rich said. “We need more bandwidth for all the cat videos.”