Tag Archives: wireless

Competitive pole access, urban streetscapes considered by CPUC

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The California Public Utilities Commission will decide whether wireline telephone companies and other licensed telecommunications companies can attach wireless equipment to utility poles on the same terms as mobile carriers. Responding to a request from the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), a lobbying group for companies that build and own cell towers and similar facilities, CPUC president Michael Picker is proposing to start the process that could eventually grant that permission.

But the questions he wants to ask go beyond the simple technical and legal considerations that go along with the current pole attachment rules, and touch on broader questions of competitive barriers and how much infrastructure is too much, particularly in urban areas…

Although the scope of this proceeding is limited to [licensed telecoms companies’] wireless pole attachments, we will take comment on (1) whether there is sufficient space and load-bearing capacity on the stock of existing utility poles to support additional telecommunications attachments, including wireless pole attachments, that may be necessary to provide ubiquitous, competitive, and affordable telecommunications services; (2) whether the cost of replacing existing poles to support additional telecommunications attachments poses a barrier to entry; and (3) whether urban streetscapes can accommodate more pole attachments, the replacement of existing poles with larger poles, and possibly an increase in the number of poles. We will also take comment on the range of pole attachments and services contemplated by WIA.

It’s not clear what he plans to do with the information about the type of wireless services that might be offered, but that sort of regulation is primarily a federal matter and CPUC has very limited, and decreasing, scope in that regard. But if it’s just about getting more information into the record and in the hands of policy makers, it’s a very positive step.

Picker’s willingness to consider WIA’s petition stands in contrast to his decision – ratified by the commission as a whole – to deny cable companies the same privileges. As a practical matter, though, most cable companies have licensed telecom subsidiaries, as their lobbyists have pointed out.

The commission will vote on Picker’s plan to take a deeper look at competitive access, or lack thereof, to utility poles, but it would be very unusual for permission to be denied – that would, in effect, decide the issue – so expect to hear more about it in the coming months.

FCC preps a bipartisan bigfoot for cities and counties

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But only the bad actors. Honest.

Local governments will have even less to say about how and where broadband infrastructure will be built. That was the clear and bipartisan message from two members of the Federal Communications Commission when they testified in front of a U.S. senate committee on Wednesday. Michael O’Rielly, who reliably takes conventional republican positions, went straight for the jugular

Standing in the way of greater Internet access nationwide are barriers imposed by state, local, and tribal entities. These range from maintaining difficult permitting and approval processes, attempts to extract enormous sums for tower siting and access to rights-of-ways, and efforts to establish government sponsored networks accompanied by favorable land, tax, and approval procedures. While the vast number of communities see the benefit of broadband deployment and welcome providers seeking to serve their citizens, there are bad actors that will likely require preemptive measures by the Commission. This problem will become even more acute as providers seek to deploy the next generation, or 5G wireless services, that will bring greater capacity, higher speeds and lower latency, but will also require many more wireless tower and antenna siting approvals. I realize that preempting local community decisions is a difficult topic to contemplate, but it has become necessary and appropriate for the Commission to exercise authority provided by Congress to address this situation.

Mignon Clyburn, who stands firmly in the democratic mainstream, was more diplomatic, but just as clear

We recognized the need for efficient and streamlined processing of siting applications as well as localities’ interests in preserving the aesthetics of their communities and ensuring the safety of their citizens. Indeed, as I have said before, approving applications to site antennas and other infrastructure are difficult policy challenges for local governments…

I believe the Commission has a unique role to play in facilitating discussions and dialogue between industry and local communities about the benefits and challenges of small cell deployment.

There’s no practical difference, though, between exercising “authority provided by Congress” and “facilitating discussions and dialogue”. Either way it means the FCC will be step in once again and preempt state and local broadband policy.

AT&T’s national 911 wireless fail is business as usual

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Consider this your notification.

No one knows yet why AT&T’s mobile phone customers couldn’t connect with 911 centers on Wednesday night. AT&T refuses to explain and the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t know either, saying only that its “public safety professionals are on the case”. The extent of the outage is unknown as well, with reports varying from “nationwide” to “likely thousands. Maybe millions”.

It appears that AT&T let a few public safety agencies know about the outage, but not all and probably not most. And the notifications were cryptic. One simply referred to “a service outage that is impacting the ability to deliver AT&T Mobility wireless 911 calls in your area”.

The outage came as California lawmakers are considering senate bill 566 which would require companies that provide telephone service – cable and VoIP companies as well as telcos – notify the state office of emergency services when 911 connectivity goes down in rural areas. AT&T’s Wednesday night silence in most cases, and dismissive responses in others, is Exhibit A in support of why that bill is necessary.

The outage should also cause concern for any policy maker – California legislators, the California Public Utilities Commission, the FCC, and the list goes on – that has to weigh AT&T’s pious claims of technological prowess and reliability against its headlong rush to rip out wireline networks and replace them with wireless systems that are built on the same platforms that crashed on Wednesday.

Technology fails. At times. That’s been true since the first caveman hit control-alt-delete and rebooted a frozen stone axe. What’s changed is that a shrinking number of companies have increasingly greater monopoly control over telecoms networks that are 1. paid for with taxpayer subsidies and 2. vital to the health and safety of those taxpayers.

AT&T’s deceit is not unique, but few of its peers match its arrogant disdain for customers and its cynical manipulation of the political process.

Two California lawmakers want to declare cell sites not a municipal affair

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The new legislative year is bringing with it a new effort to further preempt local government authority regarding where and how cell sites can be built. Senate bill 649 was introduced last week by senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego County), the chair of the senate energy, utilities and communications committee, and co-authored by assemblyman Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), who has been a good friend to mobile carriers in general, and AT&T in particular. Depending on what the final language looks like, it potentially will exempt tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of future cell site installations from local permit reviews.

As it currently reads, SB 649 creates a new category of cell sites – small cells – and puts it in the same, statutory preemption bucket as collocation facilities, which are additional antennae and such that are tacked onto existing towers. In other words, small cells will “have a significant economic impact in California and are not a municipal affair”.

What’s a small cell? SB 649 defines it by reference to a federal standard, which says, in effect, that it’s a wireless facility with no single antenna greater than three cubic feet in volume, and total antenna volume no greater than six cubic feet. “Associated equipment”, such as transmitters and power supplies, can add up to another 35 cubic feet. If you’re trying to picture it, think of a pole with a couple of oversized carryon suitcases at the top and a coffin bolted on below.

The bill that’s in the hopper now doesn’t actually say that small cells will not be “subject to a city or county discretionary permit”, as collocation facilities are currently privileged to be. But it does set the table for adding that exemption as SB 649 moves through the legislative sausage machine – there would be little point to the bill otherwise. AT&T-backed bills, for example, are infamous for beginning life as something fairly innocuous, but eventually turning into something more pathological as amendments are made.

Local agencies get more time to ponder FCC’s wireless weed whacker

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There’s more time to chime in on whether the Federal Communications Commission should consider further preemption of local authority over cell sites and other wireless facilities. Last month, the FCC moved forward on a request to do so made by Mobilitie, a wireless infrastructure company that has pushed the boundaries of ethics, if not legality, and the English language in its aggressive pursuit of permission to, among other things, plant towers in public right of ways.

A group that includes the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked for a couple of extra months to respond, and the FCC split the difference and granted a one month extension, to 7 March 2017 for the first round of comments.

So far, there hasn’t been a rush to submit comments. Only about 20 filings have been posted, and one of those is from a local government. Pokomoke City, a small community in Maryland, told a story that’ll be familiar to pretty much any agency that’s dealt with Mobilitie’s campaign to install 70,000 new U.S. cell sites for Sprint

Their initial requests were to locate new pole structures in the middle of our narrow public sidewalks – something we no longer allow. Their next proposal was to apply for a pole location on what appeared to be private property, expecting our small town, 4200, to provide title verification. The third was, after reporting to us that a specific location and height was vital, to then report they had selected a different location and changed height again. Their specs are a constantly moving target, and they wish to bank their infrastructure on the back of the town, rather than pay their way as all of the others do.

Lobbying groups for mobile carriers and wireless Internet service providers submitted preliminary amen comments; the rest appear to come from interested individuals.

FCC waves a wireless weed whacker at local governments

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Honorable mayor and members of the city council…

A bright – or at least brighter – line is likely to be drawn around the discretion local government have to grant permission, or not, to install small cell sites. At the urging of Mobilitie, an aggressive and disingenuous mobile infrastructure company, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a harder look at local and state restrictions on wireless facilities. It’s asking for public comments on whether it should invoke its status as an “expert agency” to cut through conflicting federal court rulings and issue a single set of rules that determine and preempt local government permit review processes regarding wireless sites….

We recognize…that localities play an important role in preserving local interests such as aesthetics and safety. At the same time, the Commission has a statutory mandate to facilitate the deployment of network facilities needed to deliver more robust wireless services to consumers throughout the United States. It is our responsibility to ensure that this deployment of network facilities does not become subject to delay caused by unnecessarily time-consuming and costly siting review processes that may be in conflict with the Communications Act.

The FCC’s notice (click here) correctly points out that 1. small cell deployments can result in periodic floods of permit requests, 2. current procedures in many jurisdictions are designed to accommodate occasional applications for large cellular sites, and 3. small cell sites are frequently simpler, less intrusive and more homogenous than big ones.

Cities and counties need to adapt to this changing environment, but it’s a fair question whether the FCC, which knows a lot of about telecommunications but not so much about land use and right-of-way management, is the right expert for the job. Nevertheless, the FCC seems intent on taking it on. Mobilitie is the trigger, but both the republican and democrat barrels were well loaded ahead of time. Outgoing chair Tom Wheeler promised this review earlier this year, and his republican colleagues – one of which will take up the chairman’s gavel, at least for a time, in the coming administration – have chimed in with a hearty, bipartisan amen.

The first round of comments are due at the FCC on 6 February 2017.

Morgan Hill considers broadband roadmap to catch Silicon Valley

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The City of Morgan Hill, on the edge of Silicon Valley just south of San Jose, does not share its usually good and occasionally excellent broadband infrastructure. Unlike most of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is largely served by AT&T and Comcast, Morgan Hill’s telecom infrastructure is owned by Frontier Communications and Charter Communications, and performs significantly below the Californian average.

Tellus Venture Associates recently completed a telecoms infrastructure element for Morgan Hill’s general plan update. The research, analysis and recommendations were presented to the City Council last night.

Overall, Morgan Hill’s broadband infrastructure gets a “D” grade – 1.0 out of 4.0 on a rating scale originally developed by Tellus Venture Associates for the East Bay Broadband Consortium. By comparison, cities in the Silicon Valley region generally get grades in the “C” to “C-” range, indicating that broadband infrastructure is at or near average for communities in California.

Two online surveys and a workshop conducted during the research phase of the project show that the infrastructure analysis jibes with local perceptions of the broadband service that’s available…

The primary market research conducted for this report indicates that residential and business broadband use and expectations differ in Morgan Hill, but in either case there is a significant amount of dissatisfaction with the choices available.

The City has the greatest amount of influence over greenfield and new or major remodelled infill development, and over work performed in the public right of way. By establishing clear broadband-related requirements for these kinds of projects, the City can encourage the construction of facilities that will support upgraded infrastructure.

The report details a broad range of options available to the City of Morgan Hill or most any other California city, including wireless facilities, planning, dig once, asset management, permitting, smart city, regulatory and operational policy.

The top line recommendation of the report is for the City of Morgan Hill to take a proactive approach to broadband infrastructure development, both by implementing specific policies and generally “for the City to articulate its role in broadband infrastructure planning and development, establish goals and adopt a phased approach to reaching those goals”.

Download City of Morgan Hill 2035 General Plan – Telecommunications Infrastructure here.

California law allows cities to limit mobile carriers, not vice versa

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Necessary fixtures?

Last week’s California appeals court decision affirming local authority to deny permits for wireless facilities, and other telecoms infrastructure, on aesthetic grounds also went a long way towards clarifying what criteria and considerations cities can use when managing use of the public right of way.

The California public utilities code has two sections with different standards for telecoms project review. The first section (7901), which has a hundred year history, says telephone companies may

Construct…telephone lines along and upon any public road or highway…may erect poles, posts, piers, or abutments for supporting the insulators, wires, and other necessary fixtures of their lines, in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use of the road or highway.

The second section (7901.1), enacted about 20 years ago, adds

Municipalities shall have the right to exercise reasonable control as to the time, place, and manner in which roads, highways, and waterways are accessed.

In their dispute with the City and County of San Francisco, T-Mobile and partners claimed that the first section meant that they had an unlimited right to plant equipment in the public right of way and the second section meant that the City only had authority to regulate how the construction was done.

The appeals court did not buy that argument. The three judges agreed that the second section only related to construction activities – for example, a city can set specific times for when roads may be blocked – but the first section is what defines the limits that local governments can place on the design and other characteristics of the facilities being built.

In other words, a city can make a judgement as to whether or not, say, a proposed cell site would “incommode the public use of the road”. At least up to a point – the court said that discretion is not limitless. But it can be invoked if a project would “unreasonably subject the public use to inconvenience or discomfort; to unreasonably trouble, annoy, molest, embarrass, inconvenience; to unreasonably hinder, impede, or obstruct the public use”.

This appeals court almost certainly won’t have the last say. The case could go to the California supreme court, or eventually land in a federal court. And, as the appeals court judges themselves said, “of course, if the Legislature disagrees with our conclusions, or wishes to grant the wireless industry further relief from local regulation, it remains free to amend sections 7901 and 7901.1”.

Telcos can’t trouble, annoy, molest, embarrass, inconvenience, hinder, impede or obstruct Californians, court rules

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Don’t bother ugly ducklings, either.

California cities may regulate the aesthetics of cell sites and other wireless telecoms facilities. That was the ruling yesterday from a California appeals court, in a case brought by T-Mobile, Crown Castle and ExteNet against the City and County of San Francisco (h/t to Omar Masry there for the pointer).

The major argument in the case hinged on the definition of use. California law (section 7901 of the public utilities code, if you’re keeping score) says that telephone companies can build infrastructure on “public roads and highways in such manner and at such points as not to incommode the public use”.

T-Mobile and friends said that that San Francisco couldn’t reject a permit for a wireless facility on the basis of appearance. In other words, use of a road has nothing to do with aesthetics and ugly doesn’t incommode anyone.

Not so, said the unanimous opinion of the three first district appeals court judges who decided the case…

Plaintiffs’ argument rests on the faulty assumption that “use” of a public road means nothing beyond transportation thereon. We agree with [a federal appeals court ruling] that public use of the right-of-way is not limited to travel and that streets “may be employed to serve important social, expressive, and aesthetic functions”…

Nothing in section 7901 explicitly prohibits local government from conditioning the approval of a particular siting permit on aesthetic concerns. In our view, “incommode the public use” means “to unreasonably subject the public use to inconvenience or discomfort; to unreasonably trouble, annoy, molest, embarrass, inconvenience; to unreasonably hinder, impede, or obstruct the public use.”

But the ruling also makes clear that there are limits on a local government’s use of aesthetic concerns to regulate cell towers and telecoms facilities. The court said that it might be okay to regulate appearances around, say, Coit Tower and not necessarily in “other parts of the urban landscape”, particularly “an area already cluttered with other electrical and telecommunications equipment”.

Potentially this decision is far reaching and affects all kinds of telecoms infrastructure, wireless and wireline alike. My bet: the final word will eventually come from the California supreme court.

Download the full text of the decision here.

California legislature approves LA fast track wireless reviews, sorta

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The way California law works now, if a permit application for a new cell tower is held up for more than five months because of reviews or challenges resulting from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), then the permit is deemed approved. Yep, regardless of whatever other issues are involved, once the shot clock expires, permission to build a new cell tower is automatically granted.

Suppose, though, that CEQA didn’t apply to…

  1. Antennas, including microwave dishes and arrays.
  2. Antenna support structures.
  3. Equipment enclosures.
  4. Central system switch facilities.
  5. Associated foundations and equipment.

If…

The project site…already contains either of the following:

  • An antenna support structure and either of the following components:
  • Antennas.
  • Equipment enclosures.

Well, that’s the way it’ll continue to work for a next generation public safety radio system in Los Angeles County, assuming it’s happening on public property and it passes a simple environment check. And assuming governor Brown signs senate bill 1008, which landed on his desk last week.

The exemption was originally granted in 2012, and is being extended because it’s taking a really long time to build. It’s also limited, in the grand scheme of things. Big as it it, it’s lilliputian compared to the infrastructure deployed by a typical mobile carrier.

But at its core, there’s a sound principle at work: when time is critical – shot clocks included – chop out the impenetrable undergrowth of endless procedures, reviews and appeals and eliminate obsessive minutia, and instead identify on genuine problems. And solve them quickly. Or deny the application just as fast.

The Federal Communications Commission is preparing for more preemptions of state and local authority over wireless facility colocation and tower construction projects. In order to effectively exercise what little discretion remains, cities and counties can’t be trapped like a kitten in ball of yarn by byzantine statutes and case law that drag decisions out for years.