Local governments should take action now to prepare for life under new state and federal telecommunications laws and regulations, and to deal with the changing telecom market. While it's true that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and state public utilities commissions are still writing regulations to implement telecom reform, local governments should be proactive and begin planning to manage public assets and take advantage of the new regime. The private sector certainly isn't waiting for all the rules to be written before exploring new markets and opportunities.
A good first move for a local government is to take a step back and examine current ordinances to see how they may apply under the new conditions. Also, a telecommunications policy should be written to guide the jurisdiction as it moves into the brave and deregulated new world. "Without a plan, you're just a ship adrift without a rudder," said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc. Local government should try to understand federal and state law, he said, then develop a "plan to take care of the community, so that you are not just reacting."
Telecommunications reform is essentially about lowering barriers between previously separated service providers and markets. Telephone companies, for example, will be able to offer both long-distance and local service, while cable providers could offer data as well as video service.
"The clean lines are gone," said John Kenny, president of U.S. Strategies Corp., an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting group, at a recent conference on the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996. The blurring of previously separate markets require local governments to examine existing ordinances to see if they "take into account what response to give to a request to run a conduit or erect a cellular phone tower."
Local governments also need to do it soon. "This is a critical time," Kenny said. "Telecommunications is changing very rapidly, and the marketplace will not wait for local governments."
If local governments lay a good foundation now, city and county decision makers will be better prepared to deal with telecommunications issues as the private sector increasingly enters local markets, requests use of public assets and proposes erecting communications towers for personal communication and cellular telephone services.
Local governments also need to look at how they manage rights-of-way and deal with multiple providers expressing a desire to do business in their municipalities. Governments must treat all comers on a neutral and nondiscriminatory basis to comply with the federal act and some state statutes being passed.
While it is important to create a level playing field for providers, it is not necessary to treat all types of providers exactly the same way, according to William Mathewson, staff attorney for the Michigan Municipal League, who added that too much emphasis has been placed on the term "nondiscriminatory."
"There can be differentiation between types of providers," he said. Mathewson asserted that the point of nondiscriminatory language is to maintain a level playing field between competitors.
Ensuring a level playing field could require local governments to take a step back and write a telecommunications plan. Such a plan can show the community's priorities and values, and how the municipality intends to deal with companies trying to gain entry in the local market while promoting competition.
It is still important for local government to be involved in the regulatory and legislative process, which can be done through state associations or groups like the National League of Cities or National Association of Counties. But it is also important for local governments to begin thinking about how to implement and use the new laws and regulations.
CALIFORNIA LEAGUE MODEL
The California League of Cities model telecommunications policy, which can be found on the Association of Bay Area Governments home page , includes sections on universal service goals and compensation for use of rights-of-way. The Web page also includes some examples from other jurisdictions and links to telecommunications reform information which can be helpful to other governments.
The model policy was coauthored by San Carlos Assistant City Manager Brian Moura, whose city adopted a version of the model policy in 1994. One advantage of proposing a policy is to "get the city council to talk about what direction it wants to go and what they expect," Moura said, adding that this was a key reason the issue was brought to the San Carlos City Council in the first place.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT EXAMPLES
San Francisco was in the process of creating a telecommunications commission this summer which would be charged with drafting a telecommunications plan for the board of supervisors, regulating telecom companies, and investigating consumer complaints, among other things. The board was planning to vote on the matter this summer, and it was expected to pass with the mayor's support.
The idea for a commission was first proposed in 1993 in response to the federal 1992 Cable Act, but the measure failed. An attempt to create a telecommunications commission last summer also failed. It may pass this year partly because the city has a new mayor and at least one board member who previously voted against the proposal has supported this year's version.
The joint city/county government is also hiring consultants to help decipher what the new laws and regulations mean to San Francisco. "We do not have the expertise in the city to deal with this," said June Gutfleisch, an aid to Supervisor Sue Bierman, who sponsored the commission measure.
Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, passed a resolution last year outlining the county's vision on issues including managing rights-of-way and creating conditions to attract telecommunications services at low costs for residents.
Nevada local governments are also working within a new state law that limits what a government can charge a telecommunications provider for the combined right-of-way, business license, franchise and other fees. Previously, franchise fees were calculated in ways different from business licenses and other fees, said Brenda Trainor, Clark County's telecommunications manager. "Now we have to retool our approach to both," she said.
The county is fleshing out its vision resolution passed last year to determine how to proceed. "We are trying to lay out a roadmap," Trainor said. With this end in mind, the county is holding a two-day planning session this summer with elected officials and the private sector to help all sides understand each other and help create an environment that is good for both the community and economic growth.
LONG BEACH GETS STARTED
Long Beach, Calif., put a telecommunications plan in place in late April, and is implementing programs to encourage more telecom providers to do business there while protecting the interests of the local community. The Southern California city even held a mixer recently for telecommunications service providers, and 22 companies were represented. The message is that "we are hoping they come to Long Beach," said Wally Bobkiewicz, the city's telecommunications manager.
The policy, which can be found on the Web at , parallels the federal act in that it is intended to encourage competition and a level playing field for telecommunication providers. "But we are not just opening the candy store to let technology companies in," Bobkiewicz said.
To protect community interests, the city has review processes in place on use of rights-of-way and communication tower placement. The recently formed Telecommunications Bureau is the central point for applications, and a review process can include public hearings.
The bureau was formed before the federal Telecommunications Act became law, and the
move helped centralize expertise and responsibility into one office. As regulations are created by bodies such as the FCC, "we as a city are in a position to deal with it in one place," Bobkiewicz said.
The Medina Case
The town of Medina, Wash., passed a six-month moratorium on communication tower applications in February in order to study co-location and other issues. Sprint Spectrum took the Seattle suburb to court, arguing that Medina had to act on the request "within a reasonable period of time" under the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The district court found that the moratorium was not in violation of the federal law because it is "a short-term suspension of permit-issuing while the city gathers information and processes applications." Essentially, the district court said that stepping back to gather information about telecommunications towers and zoning is allowed and not an undue burden on service providers wanting to get into the market.
The city passed the moratorium on new towers because the council wanted to learn a little more about the technology, said Joyce Papke, Medina city manager. "It is not a long time, but it gives us time to learn about the needs of providers and residents." The moratorium expired last month.
While this can be seen as a victory for local governments, it is important to understand that the district court order is only binding in that part of the country, and a district court elsewhere could come to a different conclusion.
But a court has come forward and said that local government has "the right to look at telecommunications the way it does other issues," such as urban planning, said John Kenny of U.S. Strategies Corp. in a telephone interview. An interpretation of the court's order is that local governments "should be given time to get a structure in place for the [Telecommunications] Act," Kenny said.
Telecommunications: Planning for the Future, A Guide for Local Governments is available from the International City/County Management Association at 800/745-8780.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996: What it Means to Local Governments, by the National League of Cities, is available by calling 301/725-4299.
Local Government Roles on the Information Superhighway is available from Public Technology Inc. Although published before the new telecommunications law, this book includes articles on economic development, telecommunications planning and other local government concerns. PTI publications can be ordered by calling 800/852-4934. Also, visit PTI's home page, which includes links to a variety of telecom information resources at .