Game on today, as cities take on FCC in court over pole ownership preemption

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Downtown salinas

Local ownership of street light poles and other facilities planted in the public right of way is at stake, as lawyers for dozens of cities and counties and the Federal Communications Commission square off in a Pasadena court room later this morning.

A panel of three federal appellate court judges will hear arguments about why, or why not, the FCC has the authority to tell local agencies how much they can charge mobile carriers to attach equipment to their poles, and to largely replace negotiated rental contracts with simple, non-discretionary permits. Other issues, such as access to utility poles (which fall under different laws and regulations) and road maintenance policies that prohibit digging when the danger of freeze/thaw damage is greatest, will also be taken up.

In 2018, the FCC capped the rental rate that cities can charge wireless companies for pole attachments at $270 per year. That’s in contrast to negotiated market rate deals that often top $1,000 per year and sometimes go much higher.

If they prevail, the FCC’s republican majority is ready to double down on preemptions of state and local authority over right of way management and permits for wireless facilities. At the CES show in Las Vegas last month, republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly was defiant. He said local control is “problematic” and the FCC’s response “does come with the P-word…it requires preemption. And that is something the commission is going to have to continue to do”.

Another federal appeals court, based in Washington, D.C., might have made O’Rielly’s dream less likely. In a decision that otherwise upheld the FCC’s repeal of network neutrality rules, the judges ruled that the commission overstepped its authority when it tried to preempt any and all regulation of broadband service by states. If the FCC wants to big foot state governments, it has to wait until there’s an actual regulation to preempt, and then come up with a specific basis for doing it.