Telecommunications companies are preparing to roll out the next generation of wireless networks, dubbed "5G," which promise an enormous increase in capacity and connectivity. These networks not only will increase competition in broadband, they are a key enabling technology for a host of advanced products and services. They also represent a gateway to better economic opportunities in inner-city areas that are underserved by broadband today.
But these new networks are different in structure and appearance too. Instead of high-powered antennas on tall towers, they rely on an array of lower-power transmitters closer to the ground that serve much smaller "cells." That's why mobile phone companies are concerned that cities and counties will throw up bureaucratic or financial roadblocks to 5G in their communities. It's not a groundless worry; wireless companies already have encountered local resistance in places where they have introduced the new technology.
It's the look and the intrusiveness of the small cell networks that seems to spark the controversy. People are upset about the deployment of thousands of pieces of equipment the size of small appliances being placed strategically and liberally on publicly owned "vertical infrastructure" (that's bureaucratese for municipal utility poles, street lights and even traffic lights). That means a lot of equipment in full view and in proximity — really close in some cases — to houses and people.
The wireless industry has a solution to this potentially huge NIMBY headache: A bill in the California legislature (SB 649) that would "streamline" the approval process for putting small cell networking gear on public poles and lights. If it's on property the government controls, approval would be automatic in most cases, so local governments couldn't drag out the permitting process with public hearings and studies. The bill also would limit how much rent locals can charge the companies for space on their poles and lights.
There is precedent for this kind of brazen move: The phone and cable TV companies persuaded the Legislature in 2006 to end local control over the construction of new cable TV systems, arguing that a shift to state licensing would bring much-needed competition to pay TV. But that logic doesn't apply to the mobile phone market, where there is vibrant competition. Local government officials are crying foul, calling it an audacious power grab and the equivalent of a gift of public funds to billion-dollar telecommunications companies that don't need the help.
The new mobile networks also will involve much more equipment in public view than an upstart cable TV system. Wireless companies say that the transmitters are typically the size of a pizza box or briefcase, although the bill would allow equipment up to the size of a small refrigerator.
Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego), the author of SB 649, argues that wireless upgrades are a public benefit, and therefore local governments should not have the right to endanger them with unreasonable hurdles. Besides, he says, the more that individual cities are allowed to charge for their pole rentals, the less that wireless companies will have left for network upgrades in other, possibly more needy communities. But the bill goes far beyond setting a reasonable fee to access public property; it would usurp the rights of cities and counties to make decisions about how to use their property. Those rights include the right to make the wrong decisions.
It's clearly in everyone's best interest for 5G networks to be deployed, and surely most local governments would agree. But why shouldn't cities and counties be able to try to leverage their assets to get a good deal for residents as part of the process, or take the time to get the public's input on what could be a significant change to their physical and virtual landscapes?
Small cell technology does not have to be obtrusive or unattractive, nor will every street in a community necessarily require outfitting. That's why local governments must retain some authority to push back on proposed deployments. Left to their own devices, telecommunications companies would naturally opt for the most efficient and cost-effective configuration when making a capital investment. Their goals are making profits and serving customers, not making a city look nice.
The telecommunication industry has been pushing this "streamlining" strategy in other states, with various degrees of success. Eleven have adopted some sort of laws to limit the local permitting process and pole fees. Legislators in other states, like Washington, have been more skeptical. California's lawmakers ought to be wary as well and show more interest in protecting the rights of communities to govern the use of their infrastructure, rather than letting telecommunication companies make those decisions for them.