Tag Archives: mobile broadband

Cable industry snags a side deal in California legislature’s wireless giveaway

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Another present was placed under the senate bill 649 Christmas tree this week. Language was added that would make it crystal clear that local governments in California can’t require cable companies to pay any fees or obtain any permits, beyond what’s allowed by state law, including particularly the digital infrastructure and video competition act (DIVCA) and SB 649.

It will probably have a relatively minor impact, assuming it’s not interpreted to ban routine construction approvals – building and encroachment permits, for example – which seems unlikely. The major effect will be to definitively squash a few, ongoing local attempts to get around existing restrictions on cable service fees.

According to the bill’s preamble…

This bill would prohibit a city or county from requiring a provider of video service or cable service to obtain any authorization or permit not described above to provide any communications service that is provided by a holder of a state franchise pursuant to [DIVCA]. The bill would prohibit a city or county from requiring the holder of a state franchise to pay any tax, fee, assessment, or other charge not authorized by [DIVCA], this bill, or other state laws.

This new perk for cable companies doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with the core purpose of SB 649, which is aimed at giving wireless companies on-demand access to light poles and other vertical assets owned by cities and counties at below market rates. But now Charter, Comcast and the rest don’t have to feel left out. Their lobbying front organisation in Sacramento – the California Cable and Telecommunications Association – had been raising vague objections to the bill. On the face of it, this small gift seems to a way to make sure they don’t feel left out of a massive giveaway to their colleagues in the wireless end of the business.

In reality, though, the cable industry will see direct benefits from SB 649’s wireless access provisions. Comcast is already rolling out wireless Internet of Things services and, along with Charter, are sniffing around other corners of the industry.

SB 649 has had an easy ride through the senate and, so far, the assembly. The next stop will be the assembly appropriations committee, which will likely put it on hold, until its ultimate fate is decided by legislative leaders in the final days of the legislature’s current session.

Another green light for preemption of local light poles in California assembly

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The language has been tidied up a bit, but a bill snaking its way through the California legislature would still give wireless companies the right to install equipment on light poles, buildings and other vertical infrastructure owned by cities pretty much at will, for a nominal, below market rate fee. Senate bill 649 was blessed by the assembly’s local government committee on a 6 to 2 vote, with one abstention, and sent on to the communications and conveyances committee, where the assumption is that it will find an even warmer welcome.

Wireless companies and a long list of organisations that get money from them have registered support for SB 649. On the other side are local governments who argue that

SB 649 forces local government to rent space for small cells on public property at rates far below fair market value and requires that every jurisdiction, in order to use its own public property, provide ‘substantial evidence’ that the space is needed by that community. Rents from the use of public property, which every other for-profit business pays, help defray the cost of essential public services that are otherwise provided at taxpayer expense. SB 649 sets a dangerous precedent for other private industries to seek similar treatment, further eroding the ability to fund local services.

SB 649 proposes to calculate the maximum rate for these non-consensual leases using a formula designed only for electricity and telephone poles – a limited category of installations, with fairly uniform features and costs. Application of this formula to the vast variety of ‘vertical infrastructure’ covered by SB 649 is both unfair and uncertain. The capital and operational cost components for these facilities vary widely in both complexity and amount, and (this formula is) virtually certain to result in continual disputes and confusion statewide.

The bill would also sharply limit local discretion over wireless facilities installed in the public right of way, or in commercial or industrial areas. It’s spun as a small cell-only bill, but the allowance for antennas and other equipment – mounted both on poles and on the ground – is generous enough to accomodate fairly large installations.

Bill preempting local control of cell permits, light poles amended in California assembly

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The language has been tweaked and a new formula added for setting rental rates, but the basic principle remains: California senate bill 649 would give mobile carriers and other wireless broadband providers – licensed or not – on-demand access to city and county owned vertical assets in the public right of way at below-market rates, and take away much of the discretion local governments have over where and how wireless telecoms facilities are built.

Although the bill generally applies to "small cells", the definition it uses – 27 cubic feet of stuff on a pole plus 35 cubic feet of gear on the ground, plus electric meters and switches – is big enough to include most modern wireless installations. There’s also language in it now that applies to any telecoms equipment: “a city or county may not adopt or enforce any regulation on the placement or operation of communications facilities”.

SB 649 is in the California assembly, where it’s due for a hearing in front of the local government committee on Wednesday. One of the more controversial provisions is gone. Language that limited local permits to the administrative variety has been removed. That means that local governments could exercise a bit more control than previous versions would have allowed, but only a bit. Other severe restrictions remain.

The compensation formula for leasing space on municipal infrastructure in the public right of way, such as light poles, has changed again. Instead of a cap of $850 per year, local governments could charge a flat $250 administration fee plus a share of the costs of owning and maintaining a pole. It’s hard to know at this point what that means in dollar terms, but it’s not likely to be a much different result than would have been allowed under the previous version. The legislation would, in effect, give a subsidy to mobile and other wireless companies by charging them less than fair market value for the use of publicly owned assets.

Wednesday’s hearing is probably the last, best chance for Californian cities and counties to kill SB 649, as they tried unsuccessfully to do in the senate. The local government committee is likely to pay more attention to their concerns than the assembly communications and conveyences committee, which so far this year has been more accommodating to telecoms industry interests.

California cities meet wave of mobile carrier land grabs

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I’ve been involved in several meetings between mobile infrastructure companies and staff from various California cities over the past couple of months. There’s a new gold rush going on now. And mobile carriers – Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint – are running around trying to do deals with cities ahead of 5G and pre-5G network upgrades. They want to put “small cells” on street lights and other city-owned vertical assets. Deals which might be preempted in their favor by SB 649 anyway.

What they want is to lock up real estate years ahead of actual construction. The networks won’t be fully built for 10 to 20 years, but if they can claim vertical assets, right of way and other prime locations now, they’ll be in a controlling position in any given city for a couple of decades.

5G networks rely on lots of small, short-range cell sites. Short range means you can have a lot more cells in a given area, which means the radio frequency bandwidth (also known as spectrum) can be re-used over and over.

For example, suppose you had one big cell tower that covered an entire city, which used all the spectrum a carrier has, and that amount of spectrum had a total capacity of 300 Mbps (e.g. you might have 300 people each watching their own 1 Mbps video stream at the same time). Then you replace it with 100 small cells, each with a 100 Mbps capacity and arranged so that the particular frequencies each uses doesn’t interfere or overlap with its neighbor.

All of a sudden you’ve gone from 300 Mbps total city capacity to 10,000 Mbps. That’s a too-simple example, but the principle applies.

There is no 5G technology standard currently, although there might be by the end of the year. Even so, it’ll be three to five years before the equipment is developed and proven, and then put into mass production and deployed on a large scale. In the meantime, these companies are trying to lay a claim to lots of sites for later, while using a few now that rely on current 4G technology (although they play egregious word games with that).

It’s a good idea for cities to work with mobile carriers and infrastructure companies, but it’s essential to do it in a way that creates a level playing field for everyone – incumbent mobile carriers and their vendors as well as the new ventures and technologies that are on the way – and doesn’t allow one player to lock up street lights, right of way and other real estate they won’t use for years. Given the level of local preemption activity going on in Sacramento and Washington, it makes sense for local governments to use the leverage they have while they have it.

California assembly considers preemption of local pole ownership, cell site permits

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A bill to largely end local government control of municipally-owned light poles and other vertical infrastructure and eliminate discretion over where cell sites can be located has landed in the California assembly. The perks are limited to "small cells", but the way the definition is written, it’ll allow pretty big installations anywhere in the public right of way or in commercial or industrially zoned areas, as well as setting rental rates for publicly-owned poles at below market rates. Senate bill 649 was approved by the senate on a bipartisan 32 to 1 vote last week, with seven abstentions. The no vote came from senator Steven Glazer (D – Contra Costa); all those abstaining were democrats as well.

Its next stop will be in an assembly committee. The big question is which one? SB 649 began in the senate energy, utilities and communications committee – it’s being carried by the chair, senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) at the behest of AT&T, Verizon and mobile industry lobbyists – but was then considered and approved by the governance and finance committee, which deals with local government issues. In the assembly, the equivalents would be the communications and conveyance committee and the local government committee.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D – Los Angeles) chairs communications and conveyances. It’s a new committee, split off from the utilities and commerce committee at the beginning of the legislative year. There’s not much of a track record yet, but on at least one issue that involves local government and telecoms interests – a bill to require cities and to reimburse cable companies for relocating lines underground – it accomodated telecoms interests.

The local government committee is led by Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D – Yolo County), the former mayor of Winters and a community broadband advocate. If nothing else, she should understand the dynamic between the responsibility cities (and counties) have to manage the assets they own and set community standards, and the need to expand broadband availability.

It’s possible – likely, I’d guess – that SB 649 will take the same double review path in the assembly as it did in the senate. Either way, there’s plenty of time to get it done – the deadline for committee action is mid-July.

Bill ending local control of cell site permits, light pole rentals advances in California senate

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Open access to city-owned street light poles at below market rates and a fast track for cell site approvals has landed on the floor of the California senate. Last week, the appropriations committee gave the go ahead to senate bill 649, which, if passed, would slash city and county control of municipally owned vertical infrastructure and require automatic approval of any "small cell" proposed for installation in the public right of way or in commercial and industrial zones.

The bill had been put into the "suspense file" by the senate appropriations committee, which is a legislative limbo where many bills go to die. Not this one, though. Committee members voted 6-zip in favor of passing it. Senate minority leader Pat Bates (R – Orange County) is listed as no vote recorded, which could have been a low key way of registering an objection or she just might have been out of the room at the time. Either way, it doesn’t make much difference.

Not surprisingly, SB 649 is vociferously opposed by cities and counties. On the other side is AT&T, Verizon and the mobile industry’s lobbying front, CTIA (originally known as the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association). They’ve found a willing partner in senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), who is carrying the bill on their behalf.

Lobbyists for local government have been predicting the demise of SB 649, either by progressively watering it down with amendments or killing it by other means. So far, that strategy hasn’t accomplished much. Although it can still be amended, the language that’s up for a senate vote now is the same as it was when it was unanimously approved by the governance and finance committee more than a month ago. It’s better than what Hueso originally put on the table, but all that means is that it’s gone from insanely one-sided to seriously awful – an improvement of sorts, but still a major win for mobile interests.

The senate’s deadline for passing SB 649 and handing it over to the assembly for its consideration is Friday.

Mobile voice migration hits the halfway mark, but don’t confuse it with broadband

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Voice telephone service has finally tipped to predominantly mobile, according to statistics compiled by the federal department of health and human services. The latest survey shows that a bit more than half the homes in the U.S. no longer use landline telephones to make or receive calls…

In the second 6 months of 2016, more than one-half of all households (50.8%) did not have a landline telephone but did have at least one wireless telephone. More than 123 million adults (50.5% of all adults) lived in households with only wireless telephones; over 44 million children (60.7% of all children) lived in households with only wireless telephones. The percentage of households that are wireless-only and the percentages of adults and children living in wireless-only households have been steadily increasing. The observed 2.5-percentage-point increase in the percentage of households that are wireless-only from the second 6 months of 2015 through the second 6 months of 2016 was statistically significant. The 2.8-percentage-point increase for adults and the 3.0-percentage-point increase for children across the same 12-month time period were also significant.

It’s a significant milestone, but it should be read for what it is – a measure of how people make voice calls. It doesn’t say anything in particular about how people access the Internet.

The distinction is important because telephone companies, and AT&T in particular, continue to push lawmakers and regulators to allow them to rip out copper wireline networks and replace them with wireless service. When they make those arguments, they wave statistics like these and claim that people don’t need wired connections anymore, while deliberately distracting them from the facts that 1. many mobile voice-only homes connect to the Internet via wired connections and 2. mobile data is very expensive and slow compared to even legacy DSL technology, particularly in rural and inner city communities.

Voice is migrating to mobile, although there will be demand for landline service, too, for many decades to come. Don’t confuse it with broadband service, which continues to see increasing in-home demand for speed, capacity and reliability that only wired networks can deliver.

Wireless Substitution: Early Release of Estimates From the
National Health Interview Survey, July–December 2016

Money lost on pole rentals is your problem, senators tell California cities

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Cities and counties will have to figure out how for themselves how to make up any losses they suffer if senate bill 649 becomes law. That’s the conclusion of a state senate appropriations committee analysis, ahead of a hearing on the measure last week. SB 649 would effectively give mobile carriers open access to city-owned property, such as light poles, at pre-determined, cut rate prices. As it currently reads, instead of charging wireless companies up to $4,000 or more a month in rent, cities could only charge rates set by legislature

Cities and counties currently negotiate lease rates for small cell attachments on publicly owned vertical infrastructure that is market based, and many local governments may use excess lease revenues to pay for other public services or to subsidize the extension of wireless service in underserved areas. This bill limits the fees that a city or county may charge for the installation of a small cell telecommunications facility on publicly owned vertical infrastructure to a range of $100 to $850 per small cell per year. Since these rates are much lower than what some current agreements provide, many local governments will lose significant discretionary revenues. Staff notes that loss of local revenues does not, on its own, constitute a reimbursable mandate.

If potentially chopping thousands of dollars per pole per year in revenue were a reimbursable mandate, then the California legislature would be required to make up the difference for cities and counties. But eliminating revenue isn’t the same as forcing cities to spend money on something, so tough luck.

In the end, the committee put SB 649 into the “suspense file”, where it will sit along with hundreds of other bills until the state budget has been passed, probably sometime in early June. Then, legislative leaders will decide which of those bills will move forward to a full floor vote. The remainder will be dead, by the rules of the senate.

Cheap and easy access to California streetlights queued up in Sacramento

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It’s not the complete takeover of municipal property that mobile carriers originally wanted, but the latest published version of senate bill 649 would still require California cities and counties to allow on-demand access to street lights and other “vertical infrastructure” they own, often at a steep discount on the going market rate for leases…

A city or county shall not preclude the leasing or licensing of its vertical infrastructure located in public right-of-way or public utility easements…Vertical infrastructure shall be made available for the placement of small cells under fair and reasonable fees, terms, and conditions, which may include feasible design and collocation standards…Fees shall be tiered or flat and within a range of $100 to $850 per small cell per year, indexed for inflation…

A city or county shall not discriminate against the deployment of a small cell on property owned by the city or county and shall make space available on property not located in the public right-of-way under terms and conditions that are no less favorable than the terms and conditions under which the space is made available for comparable commercial projects or uses. These installations shall be subject to reasonable and nondiscriminatory rates, terms, and conditions, which may include feasible design and collocation standards.

Under current federal and state law, cities have more or less complete control over how they lease out poles, towers and other vertical assets they own and how much they charge. AT&T, Verizon and mobile industry lobbyists wrote SB 649 and recruited senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) to carry it for them.

It sailed through the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee, which Hueso chairs, but ran into headwinds in the governance and finance committee, which deals more closely with local governments. Industry demands were trimmed back during closed door negotiations just before that committee voted, but even as amended SB 649 still faces heavy opposition from local governments.

Next stop is the senate appropriation committee, which is scheduled to hear the bill on Monday.

Bill to end local control of cell sites gets new start in Sacramento

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The California senate’s governance and finance committee did indeed shred senate bill 649 but it sent the pieces on toward a full floor vote anyway. It still severely restricts, if not completely eliminates, the ability of cities and counties to control where cell sites are placed, and requires them to lease street lights and other vertical assets to mobile carriers on demand for a nominal price.

Amendments were negotiated behind closed doors but not publicly released prior to the hearing on Wednesday. As one opponent, speaking for the League of California cities noted, it’s hard to “know what we’re against” when no one except some committee members and lobbyists have seen the amended bill. Which might have been why he fell back on nonsense and tried to make the argument that wireless service “has no public benefit”.

It’s true that, at least as originally conceived, SB 649 would result in a massive transfer of public assets into the private pockets of mobile carriers. But mobile broadband clearly has public benefits, even within the narrow definition that agencies and non-profit organisations often use: give me the money. (Although they’re not alone in that).

It was a much more civilised affair than the chaotic hearing in the senate’s energy, utilities and communications committee a couple of weeks ago. Senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego) led a fire team of lobbyists from AT&T, Verizon and the mobile industry’s lobbying front, CTIA and argued for the bill. He’s the author, although that’s not to be confused with whoever actually wrote the original language – that came from the bill’s sponsors. The companies represented by those lobbyists, in other words.

Representatives from cities and counties argued against it, as did a lobbyist for California cable companies who wanted to safeguard the special privileges her industry has extracted over the years.

The next stop for the bill is the senate appropriations committee.