Emphasizing the need and desire for advanced communications in their communities, mayors from around the country who were gathered in Washington today pushed back against the idea that municipalities are “anti-technology” and are intent on erecting barriers to broadband deployment or imposing unreasonable fees on broadband providers in exchange for licenses, permits, and access to public rights of way.
During a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ transportation and communications standing committee at the USCM Winter Meeting, mayors were briefed on “threats” from the FCC, state legislatures, and Congress that would reduce local control over facilities deployment, and were urged by speakers to engage with their congressional representatives on these issues before it is too late.
Austin (Texas) Mayor Steve Adler said that “mayors are serious, they are more than serious about deploying new technologies in communications.” He added, “We all want each of our cities to be leaders in this space.”
Yet, he said, he hears “over and over again that some city somewhere that I frankly haven’t heard of did something to stop some company from deploying something we all need.”
He recounted efforts in Austin to reach a solution with industry for 5G deployment, only to be preempted by industry-backed state legislation. “I don’t think that’s the best policy for my city or our state or our country,” Mayor Adler said. He noted that the legislation prohibited regulatory fees greater than $250 “when we have agreed that the market price is $2500.”
Mayor Adler bemoaned the “societal cost” of transferring the wealth represented by public assets to a single industry sector. “It feels like a land grab. It doesn’t recognize that public rights of way in cities are important [not only for communications] but also to recognize that that space and that right of way also has competing [uses for other] deployment and transportation.”
Plano (Texas) Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, the new chair of the transportation and communications committee, said that mayors will defend “what most people call local authority and in Texas we call local freedom to govern and our property rights.”
San Jose (Calif.) Mayor Sam Liccardo, who announced his resignation from the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee today (see separate story), citing “predetermined” outcomes favoring industry, told his fellow mayors, “This is not a partisan issue. Red states and blue precincts together are suffering.” He added that the deployment issue is “in some ways more important than net neutrality. … This is about whether you even get on the highway at all.”
“You can imagine the irony to me as mayor of San Jose in heart of Silicon Valley hearing that my city is hostile to technology,” he said.
As for the argument that lowering municipal fees will encourage deployment, Mayor Liccardo said, “There’s plenty of evidence that reducing costs will generate benefits for shareholders, maybe increased marketing budgets, but no increase in investment.”
“Industry is pushing for fees that are submarket,” he said, adding, “They want all of the rights of public utilities and none of the obligations of public utilities,” which cannot “cherry-pick” where they will deploy.
“We need an FCC and a Congress that understand that rights and responsibilities need to be symmetrical,” Mayor Liccardo said.
Georgia Municipal Association Executive Director Larry Hanson, who served on BDAC working groups, which include individuals who are not members of the full BDAC, criticized BDAC’s recommendation of shot-clocks on municipalities in approving siting applications while not proposing any expectations on industry. “Why is there not a shot-clock and the same sense of urgency in deployment after we issue a permit? That [suggestion] has been met with silence.”
He added, “They’ve coined terms such as double [cost] recovery [to apply when] somebody else is already in the right of way and paying,” suggesting that a new entrant should not be charged to avoid double recovery. “That would also be discriminatory,” he said.
Mr. Hanson also criticized BDAC proposals for “decorative poles” that don’t currently have communications or utility attachments to be treated the same as “regular poles” in terms of gaining access.
Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer for the city of San Jose, who also serves on BDAC working groups, said, “Over the Christmas break, one industry representative rewrote a draft [BDAC] report, made 800 changes, and gave us one week to get back with comments.”
She also spoke of the digital divide in San Jose. “We’re the tech capital of the world. I have companies saying to me we need 5G for autonomous vehicles. [But] we have 95,000 residents who don’t have access to the Internet.”
Regarding the “threats from Congress,” Piscataway (N.J.) Mayor Brian Wahler said that he would be briefing his congressional representative, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D., N.J.), the ranking minority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on the USMC committee’s discussions. “We need to do our part collectively,” Mayor Wahler emphasized. “We need to take this to our legislators now.”
He added, “Part of me says, ‘Let’s give Congress and the FCC control over all of this,” including “gas, electric, water, sewer, [because] they seem to know a lot about how it works. But that would be irresponsible.”
Clarksville (Tenn.) Mayor Kim McMillan warned that “when people in my city and your city wake up to the reality that there’s a big metal box going into the median strip on their street and there’s nothing they can do about it, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
She said that she has educated “and will continue to educate” her congresswoman, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.), “on why local leaders should make decisions about use of local right of way.”
However, she said, “not only has [Rep. Blackburn] nor any member of the subcommittee not consulted our local government … but she is now running for the Senate, and as such I expect there will be impediments to my getting messages to her on the campaign trail.”
“We need to make our case to these legislators now before they start making decisions,” Mayor McMillan emphasized. “We need to keep reminding them that we need to play a role in this decision because it is our constituents who will be hurt.”
Columbus (Ohio) Mayor Andrew Ginther and McAllen (Texas) Mayor Jim Darling told the committee about laws passed in their states preempting and restricting municipal authority over broadband deployments.
Eighty-eight Ohio cities filed five lawsuits in early 2017 against a bill on small-cell wireless deployments passed in a 2016 lame duck session, and “won multiple injunctions to prevent the bill from taking effect,” Mayor Ginther said. “We wanted to make sure that we had a united front in dealing with this legislation,” he said.
Texas cities also sued to overturn state legislation that incorporates some of the proposals now being considered by the BDAC, Mayor Darling said. He added that he doesn’t know how the litigation will be decided, but warned mayors in other states that “it’s coming to a neighborhood near you.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]
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