MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday approved legislation to create a statewide standard for deploying 5G cellular infrastructure and setting limits on how much money local governments can charge providers for access to utility structures.

“This legislation provides a consistent framework for the deployment of small cells, giving providers some certainty as they invest in local communities to expand this very necessary infrastructure,” said bill sponsor Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

The bill creates a uniform application process that local governments will use, as well as a timeline for approval. It also creates a cap on fees.

Orr had previously said local 5G growth was being stalled by cities that wanted more money for access to their infrastructure, including utility poles.

Senate Bill 76 was approved 27 to 3. Though he voted for it, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, spoke on the Senate floor about concerns that telecommunication growth is focused on urban parts of the state, deepening the “digital divide” between cities and rural areas like his district.

“Y’all have moved all the way up to 5G … and I can’t even get a G,” Singleton told Orr.

“We pass this bill, we’ll get you some G's, OK?” Orr responded.

Singleton went on to say that children in rural areas have suffered academically in the past year because of a lack of investment in internet connectivity.

Orr noted that the bill doesn’t involve taxpayer money and pointed to efforts in recent sessions to expand broadband across the state. He also said that Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, is working on a broadband bill “that would be tremendous as far as the broadband that would go across the state.”

That bill is expected later in the session.

A bill similar to SB76 cleared the Senate last year and then died when COVID-19 shortened the session. In 2019, the Alabama League of Municipalities opposed a different version, saying it took too much control from cities over their right of ways.

The league is now neutral on the bill after having worked with Orr, providers and the Association of County Commissions of Alabama to make changes from the 2019 version.

“This is absolutely a better bill than what started out two years ago,” said Greg Cochran, executive director of the league.

The “fifth generation” wireless technology allows high-speed internet access over cellular networks to ensure quality of service in high-capacity areas. Those networks require “small cell” receivers and antennas to take the signal transmitted from cellphone towers and disperse it locally. Providers want to place those cells, described as the size of two stacked rolls of paper towels, on utility and light poles and other publicly owned property.

Orr said most Southern states have uniformity laws like what he’s proposing and it will lead to millions of dollars in investment.

As more Alabamians rely on wireless devices to communicate, work and learn, more 5G infrastructure will mean less network congestion, Orr said.

Rep. Rod Scott, D-Fairfield, is sponsoring the bill in the House.

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— Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this story.

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