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California Cities Fight Cell Antenna Bill

Cities and counties opposing the bill say it would be a financial giveaway to telecom companies at the expense of taxpayers.

(TNS) -- Lawmakers in 179 California cities including San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco are fighting a bill to streamline permitting for wireless antennas on public buildings, streetlamps and traffic signal poles that they say would limit local control over where they go.

Senate Bill 649, by Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, proposes scaling back permit processes for antennas and equipment in an effort to meet demand for wireless services. It would cap how much a local government could charge phone companies for leases to $250 per year, though it does not prohibit them from “mutually agreeing” to a charge that’s different.

Supporters say the proposed law could lower cell phone bills for customers, increase wireless access, allow the state to deploy 5G networks and help California remain a leader in the wireless industry.

But the cities and counties opposing the bill say it would be a financial giveaway to telecom companies at the expense of taxpayers. Local officials, they say, would no longer approve the permits in a public hearing, and would lose their power to negotiate public benefits, such as network access for police, fire and parks.

“Our citizens should be concerned because they will no longer have any say-so over these things,” said San Jose Councilman Johnny Khamis. “It takes away the control of where we can place them, the aesthetic qualities and how much revenues we can charge for use of public space.”

Under the bill, phone companies like Verizon or AT&T could install antennas as large as 6 cubic feet and equipment boxes as large as 35 cubic feet — about the size of a refrigerator — sparking concerns about visual blight from the bulky equipment.

SB 649 is primarily supported by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association which said it will help boost the economy. Locally, it’s supported by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the East Bay Leadership Council.

CALinnovates, a San Francisco coalition of tech companies, said consumer demand for faster broadband is growing, and Hueso’s bill could help meet the demand.

“While increased connectivity will certainly allow more people to simultaneously stream over the top entertainment like Orange Is The New Black, small cells can also provide a cost-efficient method of increasing broadband speeds in rural communities, make public transportation systems more responsive and strengthen network connectivity during large public gatherings and events,” chief evangelist Kish Rajan wrote.

The bill is opposed by California State Association of Counties, League of California Cities and Rural County Representatives of California.

“We don’t want refrigerators on poles outside of people’s windows,” said Rony Berdugo, a legislative representative for the League of California Cities. “Despite promises being made by the wireless industry, this bill does nothing to guarantee the technology meets 5G, that it gets deployed to underserved areas and that whatever cost-savings they see from this bill is passed on to their customers.”

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who went to the state Capitol last week to testify against the bill, said it forces the city to give wireless corporations access to public property without input about the equipment’s location or size. The bill also doesn’t allow San Jose to charge fair rates for leases, he added, and provides no guarantee that low-income areas will get better wireless connectivity.

Despite opposition from Liccardo and the mayors of Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Long Beach, the bill passed the state Senate earlier this year and the Assembly’s Local Government Committee on a 6-2 vote last week.

Bay Area lawmakers Jim Beall (D-San Jose), Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) did not vote on the bill when it came to the Senate floor in May. Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) voted in favor of it.

“We all expected that the committee would move the bill forward — as is customary for a powerful lobby like telecom — but by the time that this gets to the Assembly floor, we’ll hear considerably from the more than 150 California cities that have joined San Jose in opposing this massive taxpayer subsidy of a half-trillion dollar industry,” Liccardo said.

The bill next will be considered by the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee on July 12.

Supporters are hoping the legislation gets final approval by September. If approved by the Legislature, critics hope Gov. Jerry Brown vetoes the bill.

©2017 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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