Handcuffing Cities to Help Telecom Giants

By Susan Crawford 3/29/17, 12:00 am; Link to original article


It’s good to be one of the handful of companies controlling data transmission in America. It’s even better — from their perspective — to avoid oversight. And it’s best of all to be a carrier that gets government to actually stop existing oversight.

The stagnant telecommunications industry in America has long pursued the second of those goals — avoiding oversight, or even long-range thinking that would favor the interests of all other businesses and all other Americans over those of AT&T, Verizon, Charter, and Comcast — by proclaiming that there is something really magnificent coming any day now from the industry that will make anything regulators are worrying about irrelevant. And now that technique is at the heart of achieving Goal Three—wiping out oversight.

Case in point: Right now, plans are being implemented at the FCC and at least 17 state legislatures to block cities from constraining uses of their rights-of-way by private cellular companies for 4G/5G deployments that — you guessed it — are coming any day now. In other words, if a city wants to set up a fair and competitive system that favors competitors, citizens, and long-range goals instead of the interests of a single big company—well, that would be illegal. This nationwide effort is aimed at, effectively, privatizing public rights of way.

What’s the justification? Here’s the argument the cellular industry — itself mostly a duopoly of AT&T and Verizon, with Sprint and T-Mobile together accounting for about 30 percent of the market — is making at every level:

  • We’re in a big hurry to lower the costs of deployment of advanced wireless systems, nicknamed 5G;
  • If you could stop these cities from constraining uses of their public rights-of-way, we could save money when we do these installations;
  • If we saved money by getting these pesky localities out of the way, we’d be free to invest more in high-speed internet access, including in rural areas;
  • In fact, if we installed more 5G we’d solve all your internet access problems — who needs wires when we’ve got wireless?

Every step of this argument is misleading. And the whole widespread, multi-level, fast-moving effort is a distraction from the country’s real internet access problems. But it takes a couple of sentences to explain why, and so in the meantime credulous state legislators are falling all over themselves passing bills aimed at wiping out the future ability of a city to control its own data destiny.

There is an alternative that makes much more sense. Cities need to figure out — quickly — how to require neutral wireless infrastructure to be shared by all industry players, at a reasonable, neutral cost to any requestor. Cities need to ensure that they have ample dark fiber available at a reasonable cost for all of those wireless interconnection points and for all wired competitors — like they did in Westminster, MD.

6/21/17 House Committee on Energy and Commerce:

Defining and Mapping Broadband Coverage in America
View at 42:57: Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster, MD (town of 18,000)
re: public/private partnership for publicly owned fiber-optic network,
providing 1,000 Mbps for everyone: urban, suburban and rural

States and rural areas need to figure out how to provide collateral that would incentivize private investment in fiber systems in less-thickly-populated areas; we need substantial public backing in order to create that collateral, which may take the form of bonds.

. . . 5G doesn’t exist yet. All public authorities should stay focused on the real, long-running problem: the need to ensure that everyone in the country, in rural and urban areas, has a reasonably-priced ($30-$40/month and less for people who can’t afford it), persistent, competitive fiber-capacity connection to the internet.

This latest flurry of “5G” bills has little or nothing to do with that problem. Instead, under the cloak of preparing for a supposedly amazing new technology, those bills are designed to lock in monopolies. It is true that a worldwide standard for the latest generation of wireless communications, nicknamed 5G, will likely be adopted in 2020. It is also true that that standard will use very quickly wobbling frequencies of spectrum that don’t reach very far, and so the number of existing towers for cellular service will have to be expanded greatly; carriers will need facilities that are much closer together. That means many more facilities will have to be installed on streetlights, and on the side of buildings in cities. (No one is seriously suggesting that 30-90 GHz 5G frequencies will be the answer for rural America.)

All of these facilities will have to be fed by fiber wires — which is yet another argument for the need for fiber everywhere in the country.

So called “Small Cells,” have this name because the “cell” (the area covered by their transmissions) is not large — not because the facilities themselves (microwave transmitting antennas, power supplies, backup batteries and ancillary equipment) are small. In fact, there’s a bunch of equipment for conveying power, grounding that power, cables, meters, battery systems, etc. that will take a lot of space in addition to the wireless “base station” itself. As a matter of fact, a “small cell” could be very big — and very tall — indeed. It could carry three or four cabinets or other attachments on it for electronics, power, meters, and conduit and be as large as a 35 cubic foot refrigerator.

The state bills (pending or passed in AR, AZ, CO, FL, HI, IA, IL, IN, KS, MN, MO, NE, NC, NE, PA, RI, TX, VA, and WA) are broadly aimed at removing “small cells” from a city’s oversight. Ohio vacated their Senate Bill 331 as unconstitutional and California’s Governor Jerry Brown vetoed its Senate Bill 649 on 10/15/17. The bills say, for example, that no local government can “require the placement of small wireless facilities on any specific utility pole or type of pole, or require multiple small wireless facilities to be placed on a single pole.”

That’s a huge problem for a city that wants to force carriers to cooperate in a neutral hosted location; it means that every single carrier will want its own set of poles or streetlights over which it has monopoly control. It’s also a problem for cities worried about public health and safety, interdependent systems, sidewalk and roadway crowding, aesthetics, and other problems.

The carriers want to make sure that cities can’t impose “pole taxes” for access to their rights of way. Their simple argument: We’ll reach additional customers, including in rural areas, if cities can’t charge us. But that’s just hype. Carriers reinvest their profits in capital expenses only if they’re pressured by competition or oversight to do so. In the existing stagnant, noncompetitive market, no such incentives exist. Instead, the profits will go to distant shareholders and beneficiaries of buybacks. Instead, cities should be able to set fair, reasonable, and consistent fees.

Anyway, the whole discussion is premature. Current small cell deployments are for 4G, not 5G service — remember, 5G doesn’t exist yet — and those services will not provide anything like the data capacity of a wired fiber connection. It’s true that having more cell sites (so-called “densification”) will help people in cities who are frustrated with their lousy cellphone connections, but the carriers could fix this themselves by feeding a fiber cable to every existing cell tower.

What’s really going on is that some carriers (mostly AT&T and Verizon) are aiming to ensure that single carriers can control entire “small cell” pole systems in individual cities, avoid any requirement of neutral rights-of-way infrastructure, and distract all of us by suggesting that — somehow — preempting local authority over wireless installations will lead to increased investment in genuinely high-bandwidth systems generally and, in particular, in rural areas.

That’s a pile of canards, one canard on top of the other. It’s canards all the way down. And there’s no need to fall for these, because there is no rush. 5G deployment is years away. We need to take a breath and slow the onslaught of deregulatory legislation in this area. We have time to get this right.