Critics say the law is a giant financial giveaway to the phone companies because it would force local governments to let them install antennas on public property for next to nothing.
(TNS) -- Cities and counties across California are lobbying against a proposed state law that would accelerate approval of cell phone antennas by largely stripping local governments of their power to regulate installation of them.
Telecommunications officials say streamlined approvals and lower fees would allow them to establish advanced wireless networks by installing thousands of smaller cellular antennas across the state.
Supporters of the proposed law, SB 649, also say it would lower cell phone bills for customers and ensure California remains on the cutting edge of technological innovation.
Critics, including more than 120 cities and counties across the state, say the law is a giant financial giveaway to the phone companies because it would force local governments to let them install antennas on public property for next to nothing.
They also complain it would stifle public input by taking discretion away from local governments to determine the location and visual appearance of cell antennas.
“People will be saying ‘why did you let this ugly thing go up in front of my house,’ and I will have to tell them the state took it out of our hands,” said Mayor Ron Morrison of National City, one of several local cities lobbying against the law.
The bill was approved by the state Senate on June 2 and will get its first public airing in the state Assembly on Wednesday at a meeting of the Local Government Committee.
Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, is the bill’s sponsor and said city officials have focused their complaints on loss of land control when they are really concerned about losing the revenue they reap from cell antenna installations.
“They are being completely dishonest about why they oppose this bill,” he said. “They want to charge what they want to charge.”
Many cities receive as much as $3,000 per year in lease payments for individual antenna sites, but the proposed law would shrink that to a maximum annual administrative fee of $250.
Hueso said he’s confident consumers don’t think it’s fair to pay higher rates so cities can receive additional revenue to support services like police, firefighters and libraries.
Critics, however, say that taxpayers fund construction of the streetlight poles, traffic signals and city buildings where the antennas will be installed, so those taxpayers should be able to determine who uses them and how much they pay for that opportunity.
“The bill undermines our ability to ensure residents have a voice and get a fair return on any use of public infrastructure,” said Rony Berdugo, legislative representative for the League of California Cities.
In addition to financial implications, the league’s opposition also focuses on the bill forcing cities to allow installations without public input.
“Even if every single city resident complained about a particular ‘small cell’ and its visual blight, cities and their councils would have no recourse to take them down, move them, or improve their appearance or any other community impacts,” Berdugo said.
Mayors from six of California’s largest cities, who issued a joint letter of opposition on Monday, have focused their complaints more on the proposed law being a giveaway to telecommunications companies.
“Cities, and the public, are set to lose millions of dollars in revenue that will be transferred directly to corporations under this bill,” the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Long Beach and Santa Ana wrote in the letter. “This bill subsidizes the private sector with below market rates for the usage of public assets paid for by city residents.”
The mayors said telecommunications companies are expected to make more than $500 billion from a new advanced cellular network referred to as “5G,” and that their profit margin could be as high as 30 percent to 40 percent.
A spokeswoman for San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said he hasn’t taken a position yet on the proposed law, adding that his staff is reviewing some recent amendments.
The industry association spearheading the bill, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association or CTIA, said it’s all about meeting demand for an advanced wireless network that will boost the economy.
Installation of tens of thousands of new antennas must take place in coming years as the industry switches from 200-foot-tall towers that serve large areas to “small cells” that have shorter ranges.
The smaller antennas would be a maximum of six cubic feet, but associated equipment boxes could be as large as 35 cubic feet.
Because they serve smaller areas, more small cells must be installed and more approvals will be required from local governments.
“Building the wireless network of tomorrow requires the rapid deployment of small cell structures,” CTIA said in state documents released on Tuesday. “This bill is designed to benefit California consumers and businesses, who have overwhelmingly told us that they want California to stay at the forefront of the wireless economy."
CTIA said the regulations in the proposed law would create a reliable and standardized process for approving antenna installations.
Hueso agreed, adding that his bill includes design guidelines and limits on the size of the antennas and associated equipment.
Local governments would also retain their existing discretion for antennas proposed in coastal zones and historic districts, and the bill would prohibit installing antennas on fire stations.
Hueso also argued against the characterization of the proposed law as a giveaway to private industry.
“They do make a lot of money — this is by no means my attempt to put money in their pockets,” Hueso said.
Hueso received more than $35,000 in contributions from telecommunications companies during the 2015/2016 reported period. No contribution reports from 2017 have been submitted.
Hueso works closely with the industry as chairman of the Senate’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee.
He said the goal of the proposed law is lowering rates for consumers by shrinking overhead costs in the industry, which Hueso said would spur increased competition among cellular providers.
The big-city mayors, however, contend the bill would prevent innovation and competition because it is biased toward businesses already in the industry.
They also defended existing local government regulations on antenna installations.
“Broadband deployment has not been hampered by reasonable regulations cities have developed,” they wrote. “Large cities have issued thousands of permits to carriers already, with hundreds more in the works.”
Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas agreed.
"It's really unfortunate that local control is being taken away from cities," she said. "It's just a big grab by the telecommunications industry."
Salas said she’s tried unsuccessfully to persuade Hueso that the bill is bad government.
"We simply don't agree about the detrimental effect it would have on cities," she said.
Other cities in the region that oppose the legislation are Vista, Encinitas, Menifee and El Centro.
Supporters have said the goal is to get final approval of the legislation by September.
Opponents have said that if the legislation is approved by the Legislature, they are hopeful Gov. Jerry Brown will veto it.
©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.