LINCOLN — The ticket to getting higher-speed 5G Internet service in cities like Omaha and Lincoln is passing a bill to ease approval and installation of small-cell wireless antennas, state lawmakers were told Monday.

“I can tell you, Nebraska is losing ground to other states and cities” on readiness for fifth-generation wireless services, said State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson.

The senator joined representatives of wireless Internet firms in blaming high fees and foot-dragging by cities for stunting the deployment of small-cell wireless, which was portrayed as “setting the table” for 5G.

But officials representing Nebraska cities and cable companies painted a far different picture, maintaining that installation of small-cell antennas was already progressing at a “robust” pace in Nebraska. They complained that Friesen’s proposal, Legislative Bill 184, would give an unfair financial and competitive advantage to wireless firms over cable companies.

“Don’t put your thumb on the scale in favor of one technology,” said Julie Plucker, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Cable Communications Association.

The comments came as a three-year turf war resumed Monday in the Nebraska Legislature. It pitted representatives of wireless companies, such as Verizon and Sprint, against providers of cable TV and Internet services, like Cox Communications, as well as representatives of Nebraska’s towns and cities.

At issue are state laws governing the installation of small-cell antennas. Installation of the antennas now requires negotiation with a local community and payment of right of way fees agreed upon by both parties.

A City of Omaha official testified Monday that there are currently 144 operating small-cell wireless antennas spread across the city and that talks are underway to add 20 more. Lincoln has 28 small cells, Grand Island has four or five, and Wayne has one, a legislative committee was told.

While 5G is not yet available in the U.S., it is expected to arrive within two years or so, and advocates for small-cell technology said it will be a convenient pathway to provide it in more densely populated areas. The small-cell antennas have a range of about three-quarters of a mile and can serve up to 3,000 users.

But Friesen and wireless company officials said deployment of the antennas has been hindered by high fees charged by cities to install the small-cell boxes on existing city light poles. Lincoln charges $2,000 a pole, the senator said, while the Federal Communications Commission last fall recommended fees of no higher than $270 per pole.

Supporters of LB 184 said the bill is needed to give wireless companies “reasonable and nondiscriminatory fees” and more certainty about the speed of approvals by cities. At least 20 other states have passed similar legislation.

“Everyone wants high-speed (Internet) connectivity,” Friesen said. While it will mean more competition for the cable industry, he said, you shouldn’t over-regulate new technology.

But representatives of the cities of Omaha, Lincoln, Papillion and Grand Island, as well as the League of Nebraska Municipalities, said that LB 184 is unnecessary and that the “free market” — which allows cities to negotiate their own fees and conditions with wireless firms — is working fine.

“The premise that you need this law to deploy (small-cell wireless) is a false narrative,” said Lash Chaffin of the municipalities organization.

He and other opponents said that Nebraska would not be an “outlier” by not passing the bill and that cities deserve to have control over the right of way that they lease to wireless companies.

Alan Thelen, an attorney for the City of Omaha, said the proposed bill would force Omaha to allow small-cell antennas on traffic signal poles, which could compromise the signals.

Tom Mumgaard, a member of the Papillion City Council, said it would render the city powerless to prevent installation of boxes up to 28 cubic feet in size on a pole in someone’s front yard.

David Young of the City of Lincoln defended that city’s $2,000-per-pole installation fee. He said it takes about 12 small-cell antennas to provide the coverage of one cellphone tower, so the fee is approximately one-twelfth of what’s charged for a conventional cell tower.

Cable company representatives said that their firms pay franchise and occupation fees that wireless companies do not and that LB 184 would create an uneven playing field.

After a three-hour public hearing, the Legislature’s Transportation and Telecommunications Committee took no action on LB 184.

Friesen, the chairman of the committee, said that despite the divergent views, he expects the bill to pass this year. It’s clear to him, he said, that the new technology is expanding faster in states that have passed similar bills.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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