Cell site free-for-all approved in raucous California senate hearing

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Cities and counties will be forced to hand over control of light poles they own to wireless companies for a nominal fee, under a bill unanimously approved yesterday by a California senate committee during a hearing that descended at times into chaos and low comedy. Drafted by mobile carriers and pushed by the chairman of the committee, senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), senate bill 649 would also allow wireless companies to install “small” cells (which, as defined, could be sizeable) pretty much at will, anywhere in the public right of way in California, including residential areas.

Flanked by lobbyists from AT&T, Verizon and CTIA, the mobile industry’s lobbying front, and occasionally wagging his pen at colleagues who questioned the wisdom of his approach, Hueso defended the bill and offered a rainbows and unicorns vision of a world where wireless carriers selflessly work with cities for the greater good of all. Which is the only reason they would: Hueso had difficulty articulating what actual authority would be left to local governments if SB 649 is approved as is.

There was opposition, of a sort. The initial time allotted for opponents was hijacked by a couple of storm troopers from the Tin Foil Hat Brigade, but a representative from a city planners’ association was granted a couple of extra minutes by an exasperated acting chair to make a coherent argument against the bill.

The committee members had problems with the bill as written too. At the top of the list was language that would have forced cities and counties to lease light poles to cell companies on demand, for the flat fee of $20 a year. When asked if he would accept amendments, Hueso dug in his heels, saying “it looks like I have my votes”. And he did. After threatening to vote against the bill if it makes it to the senate floor in its current form, every committee member voted aye, and sent it on to its next stop, the senate’s governance and finance committee.

It’ll face a tougher audience there.