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

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.