Portland, Ore., Prepares for a Fight with the FCC Over 5G Ruling

The city council voted in favor of a lawsuit against the Trump administration over new rules limiting local control of telecom antenna installations.

by Gordon R. Friedman, The Oregonian / October 3, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — The Portland City Council on Tuesday cleared the way for the city to sue the Trump administration over new rules kneecapping cities' ability to recoup fees from telecom providers.

By its action Tuesday, the city council added Portland to a growing list of cities, primarily on the West Coast, that are preparing to fight Donald Trump's Federal Communications Commission over what officials view as a needless freebie to cable companies.

"This is a property grab by the federal government," Mayor Ted Wheeler said at the Council meeting Tuesday, called last-minute to approve legal action.

Telecom providers are hoping to deploy new 5G wireless technology in large American cities, promising superfast internet speeds to customers. But to do that, they need access to thousands of city-owned poles and fixtures, to which the companies would affix signal transmitters. Like other cities, Portland offers access to its infrastructure only if a company pays a fee.

But two new FCC rulings threaten those arrangements. They in essence limit what cities may charge for access to their rights-of-way, Maja Haium, a deputy city attorney, told the mayor and commissioners at the special city council meeting Tuesday.

Haium said city attorneys are "very concerned" about the FCC orders, which may expose Portland to lawsuits from the federal government for rule violations. Beyond the legal problems, Haium said the orders would "significantly undercut" city cable revenues. Under one new FCC order, cities may charge cable companies only $270 per year for each attachment of hardware to city property, Haium said, rather than the $3,000 per year that is typically assessed.

Portland has been hugely accommodating to one internet provider in particular, Google Fiber, going so far as to waive fees that Comcast pays in exchange for Google providing internet service to nonprofits. At the time, Portland badly wanted another competitor in the high-speed internet and cable TV market.

Google Fiber was on the cusp of launching service in Portland in July 2016 but abruptly scrapped those plans in part because it was considering less expensive, wireless alternatives to its wireline internet service.

City officials may not feel a need to be so accommodating on 5G negotiations, because at least three wireless providers are likely to offer the exceptionally fast internet access.

The city council adopted the FCC lawsuit resolution 4-0, with Commissioner Dan Saltzman absent.

Wheeler said his administration will negotiate with telecom providers on placement of 5G technology, while also partnering with other cities "to protect the public's right" to manage city-owned property.

"We hold these public right-of-way assets in trust for the public and it's our duty to fight for the right to manage these assets," the mayor said.

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who as transportation commissioner will play a key role in 5G negotiations, cast Trump's FCC as inept. She said the federal commission gave cable giants a "corporate giveaway" they should not have.

"I hope the next administration will appoint competent people to the FCC, who will help us solve problems instead of creating new ones," Eudaly said.

Portland and the FCC are already at odds over net neutrality rules and local control of telecom policy. Local control is a fight Portland waged aggressively in the '90s but had largely abandoned during the Obama administration. A willingness to sue the FCC over 5G fees could be an indicator Portland has an interest in renewing its dispute.

©2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.