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

by Steve Blum • , , ,

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.