Leaders of cities across the United States are objecting to a decision Wednesday by the Federal Communications Commission setting national limits on how local governments can regulate the installation of the next generation of wireless technology.
The new FCC rule curtails both how much municipalities can charge wireless carriers to install 5G antennas on publicly owned structures like light poles, and how long governments have to review carriers’ applications to deploy the technology. Under the federal regulation, carriers will pay a flat rate of $270 per small-cell antenna, compared to a national average of about $500 under a current patchwork of local ordinances that vary from state-to-state or city-to-city. Municipal governments will also have just 60 days to review applications for antenna installations, or 90 if a carrier wants to install an entirely new pole.
“This wrongful intrusion threatens to slow down and undermine the FCC’s own efforts to accelerate the deployment of new wireless infrastructure,” the U.S. Conference of Mayors said in a press release. “The Conference believes this aggressive, and surely unlawful, intervention will prove counterproductive.”
Individual mayors and municipal chief information officers were more direct in their objections to the FCC’s move.
“Rather than encouraging balanced, common-sense recommendations that advance equitable broadband infrastructure deployment, the FCC’s move will force taxpayers to subsidize industry access to publicly owned infrastructure — with no obligation to serve the 35 million Americans in low-income and rural communities who remain on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide,'” San Jose, California Mayor Sam Liccardo said.
San Jose has been one of the most aggressive cities in drafting plans to install 5G-capable infrastructure, recently reaching a $5 million agreement with AT&T and a similar deal with Verizon . Those partnerships require the phone companies to install small-cell antennas throughout San Jose, including low-income areas that often lag behind in broadband adoption compared to wealthier neighborhoods. The FCC’s rule, Liccardo continued, could reverse those efforts.
“Thousands of students in cities like San Jose will continue to have to borrow their friends’ smartphones while huddling outside of a Starbucks in order to get access to a Wi-Fi network they need to do their homework, due to the unwillingness of the federal government and telecommunications industry to serve them,” he said.
A ‘public’s right’
Local rules on 5G adoption have been a source of widespread disagreement between cities and states. A group of towns in Pennsylvania is objecting to a bill currently being considered by the state legislature in Harrisburg that would prevent municipalities from charging more than $100 per antenna. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation in April that would bar every locality in that state — except Chicago — from charging more than $650 per antenna. Texas faced a lawsuit from 22 cities , including Austin and Dallas, over a law that capped small-cell installation fees at $250.
But the Conference of Mayors argues that imposing nationwide limits on 5G deployment is unnecessary, pointing to the adoption of 4G LTE technology, which has been the wireless standard since 2009.
“The record on 4G deployments shows that the nation’s mayors with other local and state officials partnered successfully with the private sector to build out the nation’s 4G network, with the U.S. today accounting for roughly 40 percent of the world’s 4G facilities,” the organization’s statement reads.
Samir Saini, the chief information officer of New York City — a city that charges small-cell fees ranging from $144 in underserved neighborhoods up to $5,100 in the wealthiest parts of Manhattan — blasted the FCC’s rule-making as an intrusion on local control of municipal infrastructure.
“Make no mistake: the FCC is threatening the public’s right to control public property, and dozens of cities, states, and towns from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska to Anchorage, Alaska are ready to defend that right on behalf of our residents and taxpayers,” Saini wrote in a Medium post .
Saini also framed the new regulation as a potential threat to public safety. “Without local control, multiple companies could pile many different installations on a single light pole. Imagine a mass of new equipment on a single structure, ruining streetscapes and potentially interfering with first responder, electric utility and other critical equipment,” he wrote. “Then imagine what might happen during a hurricane or an act of terrorism when public safety systems or traffic control or cell service is damaged.”
Considering all options
The FCC passed the new 5G regulation on a 3-1 vote along party lines. In voting against it, Jessica Rosenworcel, the commission’s lone Democrat, said she supported tighter deadlines on applications for small-cell installations, but objected to the fee caps. “Instead of working with our state and local partners, we cut them out,” she said during the hearing Wednesday.
The Communications Workers of America, the largest union representing phone-company employees, also objected to the FCC. “Cities want to bring next-generation technology to their communities,” Debbie Goldman, CWA’s research director, said in a press release. “The commission has taken away local governments’ discretion to balance the needs of their communities. It has replaced the power of local elected officials with that of an unelected federal agency.”
In pushing through the new rule Wednesday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued municipalities were more interested in squeezing wireless companies than developing 5G networks.
“They would like to continue extracting as much money as possible in fees from the private sector and forcing companies to navigate a maze of regulatory hurdles in order to deploy wireless infrastructure,” Pai, a former Verizon lobbyist, said.
But several of the reactions to the FCC’s decision suggest the matter is not settled.
“We will consider all of our legal and political options to ensure the voices of local governments are heard, to achieve a more inclusive version of our digital future,” Liccardo said.
Saini, the New York City CIO, suggested the group most likely to benefit from the FCC’s decision are lawyers.
“Congress has clearly assured cities control of local rights-of-way for wireless equipment,” he wrote. “The courts have upheld this, and if the FCC proceeds otherwise, all Americans stand to gain are lawsuits and confusion, not enhanced wireless service.”