Who controls where wireless providers may install the antennas that connect cellphones to the internet?
Right now in New York, that decision is made on a case-by-case basis by cities, towns and villages. But that may change, if one of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's budget proposals passes in the Legislature.
The bill would wrest control over public rights-of-way away from local governments in favor of a uniform permit and review process across the state.
That has critics of the rapid installation of new wireless infrastructure warning that Albany has overreached in a state where localities get to decide how their public land is used.
"The only things residents will get out of this bill is lower property values, visual blight, and a front-row seat to unregulated, mass proliferation of wireless infrastructure in their town," Alissa Shields, an Amherst environmental activist, told the Amherst Town Board last week.
It all has to do with the rollout of 5G, the next mobile wireless standard. 5G's faster data speed requires a dense network of nodes called "small cells" affixed to utility poles in close proximity. The equipment is often the size of a small appliance, and the telecommunications industry says they're unobtrusive and safe.
Verizon Wireless expressed support for the governor's proposal, saying it would help the company meet customer demand for the latest, fastest wireless technology.
"This measure will promote private investment in state-of-the-art telecommunications networks at no cost to taxpayers," David Lamendola, Verizon's director of state government affairs for New York, said in a statement. "The governor’s proposal will support jobs and new opportunities by paving the way for the deployment of the newest technologies, including 5G, which will deliver faster connections and higher speeds."
But local officials are wary, and the debate over how to regulate the future of wireless infrastructure is playing out locally and across the country.
"I have seen what these towers in the public right-of-way would look like," James Hartz, the Town of Tonawanda's director of community development, said by email. "Not pretty."
Hartz said the installation of the towers in residential areas "would be a complete change in character of those neighborhoods."
Small cells would add about four feet to the height of an existing utility pole. But Hartz said he's also seen proposals for metal utility poles between the curb and sidewalk ranging from 75 feet to 120 feet tall that are four-feet wide at the base. At its highest, the poles would be six times the current height of telephone poles.
"I get the industry argument, they just want these up as fast as possible to start marketing 5G network speeds. But as a resident, nobody is going to want one of these near them," Hartz said.
After Verizon last year submitted a dozen applications for small cells in a neighborhood west of the University at Buffalo, the Town of Amherst placed a moratorium on new cell towers and formed a committee to review the town's zoning codes.
In fact, that committee has drafted a new local law set to be reviewed by the town Planning Board on March 15. The Town of Tonawanda has also revised its codes over the last year and adopted the updates. But, if enacted, the new state proposal would override all their work, "eviscerating" local control over the deployment of new wireless facilities, including small cells, said Shields, who served on the committee.
"The single most important job a municipality has is land use and the state is taking this away from you," Shields said. "What’s next?"
Amherst Town Attorney Stanley Sliwa said municipalities would lose out on some of the "bargaining chips" that come with negotiating with wireless providers, such as receiving free municipal Wi-Fi along busy commercial thoroughfares like Main Street.
"We need to have some local control over their placement," he said. "We're giving them use of prime real estate, we should be able to get some fair compensation."
The proposal has also fired up opposition from two groups representing local elected officials statewide – the Association of Towns and the New York Conference of Mayors.
Last week, NYCOM's executive director, Peter A. Baynes, wrote a letter to State Senate Majority John J. Flanagan in which he warned that "this bill would usurp local government authority to address the public safety and aesthetic concerns related to the installment of such facilities by providing for default approval of wireless installations."
The letter was co-signed by mayors from across the state, including Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown.
The issue has also popped up nationally. After months of debate and amendments, California Gov. Jerry Brown in October vetoed a similar industry-backed bill, dealing a blow to the powerful telecommunications lobby.
"I believe that the interest which localities have in managing rights of way requires a more balanced solution than the one achieved in this bill," Brown wrote in his veto message.
However, 13 states have enacted an agreement like the one proposed here, according to Verizon's' Lamendola.
"We hope that New York can as well," he said. "If local government leaders are concerned that the governor’s proposal does not provide them with adequate oversight authority, then we are happy to discuss this with them to resolve their concerns."
To Shields, however, the decision on whether to place small cells in neighborhoods, near schools, parks and churches should rest with local officials.
"We must tell our leaders in Albany to reject this attempt to wrest control from municipalities and stand up for the best interests of New York residents," she said. "Amherst, not Albany, should have the final say on what private industry can build within its municipal borders."