Capitol Alert

Cell transmitters on every block? Cities, counties fight to retain control over expanding industry

Dave Roberts has seen plenty of calamitous fires, and the lingering thought after they’re extinguished always is, “If we’d only been there sooner.”

The El Dorado Hills fire chief knows well that for every minute a structure fire burns, it doubles in size, putting both civilians and his firefighters at risk. He also knows there has to be a way to cut response times.

That’s why he and the California State Sheriffs’ Association have joined with California telecommunications companies and chambers of commerce to back legislation aimed at providing a more robust system of cellular telephone service. Senate Bill 649 would make it easier and cheaper for the companies to place small transmitters in cities and counties. More cells, they argue, will improve service and add critical redundancy to phone systems in areas affected by wildfires or other natural disasters.

“This is a very important bill to ensure that we provide the best and most high-level communication service to the people of our state in a way that contains costs,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego.

But as the bill breezes through the Legislature with few dissenting votes, hundreds of city and county governments are pushing back. They say it removes their discretion over where unsightly “small cell” wireless antennas – some as big as a refrigerator with their associated equipment – will go, and reduces by millions the leasing fees they collect from the companies to place cells on public lands.

The state would dictate how much jurisdictions can charge providers for leasing public space on telephone poles, street lights, traffic signals, parts of sidewalks and spaces in public parks. Private landowners would still be able to negotiate with companies about design and location of cells on their land as they do now.

“It’s a Pandora’s box for California cities,” said Reinette Senum, a city councilwoman in Nevada City. “It’s one that blatantly strips local government of the authority to protect quality of life for residents, the environment and the public right-of-way.”

Opponents suggest the bill’s swift advance so far illustrates the telecom companies’ ability to pay for lobbyists and make campaign contributions.

“The wireless industry has a lot of power,” said Jolene Voorhis, executive director of Urban Counties of California. “I don’t want to be too crass, but they give a lot of money, and we can’t.”

Campaign finance reports show that telecommunications firms such as AT&T and the California Cable & Telecommunications Association have contributed more than $15.3 million to the campaigns and initiatives of California legislators since 2013, either directly or through political action committees and groups such as Act Blue America or Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy. Local governments are prohibited from using tax money to make political contributions.

Supporters counter that their success is more about legislators knowing what makes good policy. Organizations like the Society for the Blind, the California Asian Pacific Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the California National Association for the Advancement of Colored People want to ensure that technology is not a barrier for minority communities. They said the bill is a way to expand strong cellular service to those who need it most.

City leaders worry that losing control over aesthetics and finances could be too great a cost to pay for providing that access.

San Diego makes about $4 million a year leasing space to telecom companies – with rates at $4,000 per pole for the first 50 poles. Small cell attachments make up more than 20 percent of that total, according to Arian Collins, supervising public information officer for the city. Senate Bill 649 would likely drop that amount, because it would cap leasing fees at $250 per pole per year and keep additional attachment rates lower than what many cities consider a fair market price.

Humboldt County Supervisor Rex Bohn said he doesn’t see telecom companies rushing into rural communities that have no or low connectivity, either. The small cells need to be close together to work most efficiently, and there isn’t enough demand in such areas to attract the companies. Existing structures, Bohn expects, will quickly become a lesser source of revenue to his county as firms renegotiate their contracts.

“The bill subsidizes the private sector with below-market rates for the usage of public assets paid for by residents,” mayors in Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Long Beach said in a letter to the committee. “Telecom carriers are estimated to make $580 billion in revenue on 5G services at a 30-40 percent profit margin … small cell deployment will lower costs by 12-57 percent for these carriers. The public should not further subsidize these businesses at the expense of fair compensation to the public.”

The sponsors of the bill say it’s all in the name of providing incentives to expand their services and roll out 5G en masse in California, putting it at the forefront of technological advances.

“The more favorable the regulatory and cost conditions, the more we will be able to deploy as planned,” said Jesus Roman, assistant general counsel at Verizon. The provider plans to triple the amount of large cellular transmitters in rural Lake County and increase by 18 times the number of small cells in Sonoma County.

Hueso said he expects the lower installation fees and rent will trickle down to the customers of those services. Opponents counter that there’s nothing in the bill’s language to require providers to negotiate a public benefit.

“You may remember that the City of Sacramento was recently able to get free Wi-Fi in 27 parks in exchange for 100 poles to Verizon,” said Voorhis, who argues that such public benefits likely wouldn’t happen under the bill. “Many cities and communities want to provide better wireless to their underserved communities, and this bill does not require any such deployment.”

While the bill doesn’t prevent such contributions, it says cities and counties can’t require them.

Cities and counties also say they will lose critical control over aesthetics of the small cell devices. The bill ensures telecom companies access to most “vertical infrastructure” on taxpayer-funded property, in the public right-of-way and in commercial and industrial zones. Only coastal communities and historic districts are exempt.

“Although the industry has been able when pressed to come up with smaller, less intrusive cell designs, this bill would prohibit local governments from being able to require anything more restrictive than what’s defined in the bill,” said Rony Berdugo, lobbyist for the League of California Cities.

“They don’t have to go through this design review process where they shrink the equipment or make it blend into the environment,” he said. “That’s our concern, that our neighborhoods are going to get blighted with this large, bulky equipment.”

Rennie Svirnovskiy, 916-321-1013, @RennieYS