Wireless Communication Bill Sparks Clash Between California State, Local Officials

Proponents argue that to have a blanketing “statewide framework” for approving small-cell projects would streamline the process of deploying the most cutting-edge technology for customers.

by Dominic Fracassa, San Francisco Chronicle / April 14, 2017
San Francisco, where Verizon installed about 400 small-cell antennas ahead of the Super Bowl in 2015. Flickr/Daniel Hoherd

(TNS) -- A resolution unanimously approved by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday may put the city on a collision course with Sacramento legislators over a bill that aims to shift the power to regulate the placement of wireless communications devices from local municipalities to the state.

The resolution, introduced by Supervisor Mark Farrell, marks the city’s formal and forceful opposition to SB649, a bill introduced by state Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego. Should the bill pass in its current form, Farrell said, San Francisco would also lose out on “tens of millions of dollars” in fees for permitting or leasing the areas where small-cell infrastructure would be placed.

The bill passed out of the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee on April 4. It would give the state the ultimate authority to issue permits for devices known as small cells — compact antennas that can be placed atop telephone poles or lampposts to boost cell phone signals in densely populated areas. Some look like slim cylinders; others look like boxes.

Telecommunications companies like Verizon and AT&T see the swift rollout of small-cell technology as essential to their ability to keep up with the ever-increasing demand for mobile broadband bandwidth. AT&T, which declined to comment Wednesday, is in the midst of an initiative to roll out about 1,000 small cells across the Bay Area this year. Verizon installed about 400 small-cell antennas in San Francisco ahead of the Super Bowl in 2015.

Obtaining city-by-city permits needed to install small-cell antennas is a cumbersome process that hampers the ability to deploy the most cutting-edge technology for customers, advocates for the telecommunications industry say. Having a blanketing “statewide framework” for approving small-cell projects, as Hueso’s bill proposes, would streamline that process.

Hueso could not be reached for comment.

At least 17 strikingly similar bills are winding their way through state legislatures across the country; those in Arizona and Ohio recently passed.

Some local governments, however, have blanched at the prospect of ceding their regional authority to authorize and regulate the antenna installations to officials in state capitals.

The issue has transformed seemingly mundane legislation about antenna permitting into a sharp-elbowed struggle pitting local and state governments against each other.

“It’s a push-and-pull between the various levels of governments,” said Michael Ritter, a telecommunications attorney in Carlsbad (San Diego County) who spent nine years at the Federal Communications Commission.

“The overall goal (of the bill) is to make things go faster. That’s what the industry wants. They don’t think the municipalities act quickly enough and are throwing roadblocks up to the deployment of the small-cell technology,” Ritter said.

San Francisco and 23 other California cities and towns have expressed opposition to SB649, including Dublin, Hayward, Lodi and Santa Clara. They’ve been joined by local governmental advocacy organizations such as the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties.

In general, critics of the bill say that it fails to take into account local concerns about design, potential impact on historical structures and the structural integrity of the poles on which the antennas would be placed, among other concerns.

“We want to be encouraging greater connectivity for all our residents, but we have to do it the right way,” Farrell said.

Telecommunications companies, Farrell said, “want to treat our public right-of-way as their own private garden, and it’s simply not appropriate. I can’t believe that the state is actually considering passing this (bill).” He added that, as it currently stands, the bill doesn’t address how cities would have to approach privately owned pieces of equipment affixed to public infrastructure.

“What happens when the city wants to take down a light pole? Do they have property rights that say we can’t remove a fallen light pole unless a company gives us permission? It’s not talked about at all.”

Farrell said that “well over 90 percent” of the applications for small-cell installations in San Francisco have been permitted, a signal that the city’s permitting process is working as intended.

Sophia Cazanis, a California spokeswoman for CTIA Everything Wireless, a telecommunications trade association, said in an email that the bill is “essential to expanding California’s digital infrastructure and providing greater, faster access to next-generation wireless networks, which our state’s economic future increasingly depends on and California consumers overwhelmingly demand.”

She added that the legislation “respects the long-standing authority of local governments to protect public health and safety and manage public rights of way while not subjecting small-cell structures to the same permitting standards and processes that have been in place for decades for traditional (cellular) towers.”

Pressure from individual municipalities may be mounting, but should the bill make it through the California legislature, Farrell said San Francisco would “explore all options as a city” when it comes to fighting its implementation.

“We’re not going to stand idly by and give tens of millions of dollars in corporate breaks to telecom companies without a fight,” he said.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.