Tiny Doylestown Borough battled Verizon over 5G and won a big settlement

The intersection of State Street and Main Street in downtown Doylestown Borough. The cell towers are not up yet and are going through the permitting process.

When Crown Castle Corp. proposed dozens of 5G small-cell antennas for Verizon Communications along streets in Doylestown Borough, the reaction was a defiant no.

Residents thought the boxy equipment that sprouted five-foot antennas on traffic lights or telephone poles would mar the borough’s Norman Rockwell charm, along with the artsy aura of its Victorian homes.

Others feared for their health with intensive 5G wireless services zapping them.

Doylestown officials spent $150,000, held 10 public hearings, and fought the small cell proposal in state and federal courts over more than a year, defending their right to say where the small cells would go — a David-vs.-Goliath  tale of a small Pennsylvania town taking on a big corporation.

“We didn’t feel they had the right to come and do what they want,” Jack O’Brien, council president of this borough of roughly 8,000, said Monday.

When Doylestown finally settled the case last month, the town won the right to reduce the number of poles as well as camouflage and relocate some of them. It also surprisingly won a 5 percent share of the revenues for the services Verizon or other companies sell through some of those Crown Castle cells, and $750 a year for others.

But the borough’s victory may be hard for other towns to replicate, as telecom companies are canvassing Pennsylvania towns to locate thousands of new wireless cells for the new 5G high-speed mobile networks.

State lawmakers are considering a bill that would largely strip municipalities of zoning oversight when telecom companies seek permits for small cells on utility poles and traffic lights. If enacted, the measure would also set small fees — from $25 to $100 — for small cell permitting.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Frank Farry (R., Langhorne) and the wireless industry say this new capacity will lead to innovation such as driver-less cars, and many new jobs in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Twenty other states, including Ohio and Delaware, have passed similar legislation, backers say. But this effort will also entail installing 300,000 new small cells — all about the size of laptop computers or briefcases — in cities and towns across the United States over the next three to four years.

And in Pennsylvania, lines are being drawn between state lawmakers and wireless industry officials who want to make it easy to roll out 5G, and municipal officials who bemoan the loss of local control and dislike the telecoms’ encroachment on their turf.

Rep. Robert W. Godshall (R., Hatfield), the chair of the consumer affairs committee, told municipal officials opposed to the measure that they had to get in line with the new technology during a hearing Aug. 9.

Wireless carriers can’t easily add small cells in a state with more than 2,500 municipalities, each with its own zoning rules and procedures, Godshall said. There had to be legislation to make it easier for the carriers.

And, he added, towns and boroughs shouldn’t consider the new small wireless cells as new revenue sources for municipal budgets.

Godshall said he didn’t think most towns even cared about the issue. “Local governments have not been involved in this. You guys are leading them along,” Godshall told the heads of the Pennsylvania Municipal League and the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs at the same hearing. “I have four boroughs in my district and I haven’t heard a word from them. So, I mean, what’s happening?”

But municipalities — Lancaster, Abington and Haverford, among them — have pushed back on small cells and forced some changes.

In Doylestown, wireless infrastructure firm Crown Castle approached borough officials in 2014. Crown Castle, with major operations in Western Pennsylvania, installs and manages the small cells for wireless carriers. Doylestown officials say they were told that Verizon would use the new small cells and that Crown Castle also might lease the wireless capacity to other carriers.

The small cells initially would broaden coverage for 4G in Doylestown but also prepare for 5G, which Verizon has said it would begin offering in other parts of the United States this year.

Crown Castle submitted the first dozen or so applications in October 2016. Karyn Hyland, the borough’s zoning officer, said the initial application for 44 small cells overwhelmed her small department with “boxes and boxes” of documents.

Facing persistent opposition, Crown Castle filed lawsuits in Bucks County and Philadelphia, challenging Doylestown’s ordinances and denials.

Last month, the two sides settled the lawsuits. Under the terms, Crown Castle can put just 34 small cells in the town and has entered into a revenue-sharing agreement so that Doylestown can earn some money off the equipment to recoup its $150,000 in costs over several years.

After that, the borough can earn some revenue from the small cells, making Crown Castle pay for the use of the right of way.

The cells won’t go up for several months as they go through a permitting process. When they do, Borough Manager John Davis said, Crown Castle will relocate small cells in front of the historic Fountain House and Mercer Museum as part of the settlement.

It will also use decorative poles in places to camouflage the cells. “We put a lot of effort into it and we felt like we got something out of it,” Davis said.