Bill to gut local review of cell sites gets California senate hearing today

4 April 2017 by Steve Blum
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Stripping local governments of most of their discretion over where wireless equipment can be installed – including on property they own – is just one of the provisions of a bill that is scheduled to get its first hearing today in the California legislature. Senate bill 649 will go before the senate energy, utilities and communications committee later this morning, and is likely to receive a warm welcome. The principal backer is senator Ben Hueso (D – San Diego), who is also the chairman of the committee. He is carrying the bill at the behest of CTIA, a lobbying front for mobile carriers, in particular the four big ones: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. As expected, the bill is getting friendlier to the big dogs as it moves along.

The first analysis of the bill was posted yesterday. It was nominally prepared by the committee’s staff, who reports to Hueso, but much of it reads like it was written by lobbyists for cell phone companies. What is clear from the summary is that if a mobile carrier rocks up with a cell site that meets the criteria for a “small cell” – which might not actually be all that small – then cities and counties will have little to say about where it can be installed, including on poles and other property that belongs to them. According to the staff analysis, among other things, SB 649…

Establishes that a small cell is a permitted use not subject to a city or county discretionary permit if it [is]…located in i) the public right-of-way in any zone or ii) in any zone that includes a commercial or industrial use…

Prohibits a city or county from precluding the leasing or licensing of its vertical infrastructure located in public right-of-way or public utility easements, and requires the fees are cost-based, based on the FCC’s formula.

The analysis recommends that some changes be made to clarify how California Public Utilities Commission rules interact with the bill’s provisions. It also notes that Hueso has committed to work with cable lobbyists to make sure their needs are met, a promise that hasn’t been extended to the long list of cities and other organisations that oppose it (although the list of supporters, including many who take money from telecoms companies and lobbyists for just such a purpose, is longer). The bill will get a second hearing, though, in front of the senate’s governance and finance committee, which does pay attention to the details of local land use policy and other municipal concerns.