Saying no to big telecoms’ ‘small cells’

SH, LB stand with other CA cities, communities and business groups opposing SB 649

Anita W. Harris | Signal Tribune
Kristine Guerrero (center, at podium), League of California Cities public affairs manager and legislative director, initiates a “No on SB 649” press conference on Aug. 30 in Long Beach, flanked by supporting local elected officials and group representatives. Nearby, frame mockups made of PVC pipe show the sizes of telecommunications devices that could be installed– including in the yards of private residences– if SB 649 is passed.

In a “No on SB 649” press conference Aug. 30 at Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach, about 20 elected officials from Long Beach, Signal Hill, and other local League of California Cities– such as Artesia, Bellflower, Lakewood and Palos Verdes Estates– plus local business and community group representatives, stood firm in opposing Senate Bill (SB) 649 on wireless telecommunications facilities.

Over 200 California cities and dozens of counties oppose the bill, mostly because it permits wireless telecommunications companies (such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint) to install new equipment in public right-of-way spaces and infrastructure (such as light poles) without much power of resistance by local authorities.

Currently, the text of the bill includes the following statement: “This bill would prohibit a city or county from requiring a provider of video service or cable service to obtain any authorization or permit […] to provide any communications service that is provided by a holder of a state franchise pursuant to the act.”

In their statements at the press conference, most of the five speakers made clear that they and the elected officials in attendance were not opposed to the new technology the legislation would promote, but to telecommunications companies potentially adding large devices indiscriminately in public spaces, including those abutting residents, causing nuisance.

Underscoring the potential large size of these devices, Dr. Jonathan Kramer, an attorney and radio-frequency engineer, created mockup frames out of PVC piping to visually demonstrate the inaccuracy of the term “small cells,” which is the language used in the bill to describe what telecommunication companies would be permitted to install if the bill passes.

Kramer’s frames show that, if SB 649 passes into law, telecom companies can install equipment on telephone and light poles that are the size of an adult human and erect ground-level equipment cabinets large enough to hold two adults.

“The way the law is currently written, [new devices] can go in front of any house or any business with not even notice to the residents,” Kramer said in an interview with the Signal Tribune prior to the press conference. “[Telecom companies] walk in, they have the right to get a permit, they walk out, they build it and– surprise!– in the morning you’ve got one of those in your front yard.”

Kramer also said the equipment issue is not just one of aesthetics but could also cause other problems.

“What’s concerning a lot of jurisdictions is safety, in the blocking of sight lines for drivers,” he said. “From a police department standpoint, they’re concerned about bad guys hiding behind those [ground cabinets].”

During the press conference, 8th District Long Beach Councilmember Al Austin made clear how all the gathered leaders supported new technology, but not bypassing local authority for its implementation.

“We support the expansion of fiber, we support businesses, we support local communities and we support well designed urban spaces,” he said. “SB 649 would nearly eliminate our City’s, and every other local government’s, ability to manage the way in which telecommunications equipment is deployed in our neighborhoods and around businesses, just so the telecommunications industry can have their equipment permitted more rapidly throughout California.”

Austin also affirmed the positive intent behind the pending legislation, which, according to the bill’s text, is to ensure “robust” connectivity and “create a statewide framework for the deployment of advanced wireless communications infrastructure in California.”

But Austin expressed opposition to the bill’s method for achieving this purpose.
“We really understand the need to deploy modern telecommunication infrastructure, but SB 649 is just not the right approach,” Austin said. “Based on the industry’s estimate, we expect to see 1,000 to 2,000 of these so-called ‘small cells’ in Long Beach over the next couple of years, and over 100,000 statewide.”

Austin also expressed concern that local communities would be at the mercy of telecommunication companies rather than government regulation.

“Given that the aesthetics of the wireless telecom sites is the only main element left upon which a local government may exercise any type of meaningful regulation, the adoption of SB 649 would essentially remove all oversight of wireless telecommunication development at the local level, leading to a one-size-fits-all approach […], with no regard to local communities,” Austin said.

Austin Metoyer, a policy and research manager with the Downtown Long Beach Alliance business group, concurred.

“SB 649 would leave communities like ours, and the elected officials who represent us, without any ability to work with telecommunications companies to determine how wireless technology equipment is integrated into the public infrastructure,” he said. “We support new technology, increased bandwidth and connectivity. These are key building blocks of successful businesses. However, we must recognize local land-use decisions, such as design standards of infrastructure in the public right-of-way.”

Jim Biery, legislative chair of the American Public Works Association, described in harsher detail the potential negative effect of the bill.

“With new equipment needed for every 10 to twenty homes, SB 649 would turn most utility poles into cell-phone towers,” he said. “It would place cell antennas and clusters on utility poles and light poles, and put equipment cabinets the size of refrigerators on sidewalks. [Telecom companies] would also have the ability to place these [towers] on city parks, recreation buildings, libraries and other public facilities.”

Biery also anticipated a consequential erosion of trust between residents and local governments.

“Public works departments will face intense criticism when residents see large ground-mounted cabinets housing electrical meters, backup batteries and other equipment, that impede their ability to park their cars and use their property,” Biery said.

An additional concern with SB 649, expressed by Sydney Simon, board member of Belmont Heights Community Association, is that local governments would not benefit financially very much from the installation of these new devices. The text of the bill allows cities to charge companies $250 annually for each ‘small cell’ attachment, plus a minor “attachment rate” that would have to be calculated separately for each device.

“This bill reduces, by 85 percent, the annual fee the city is able to charge telecom companies for placement of this equipment in our public space, and does not require telecom companies to consider aesthetics when placing this equipment on our utility poles,” Simon said. “This bill is a giveaway to the telecom industry at the expense of those of us living in Long Beach.”

In an interview after the press conference, Culver City Councilmember Jim Clarke summarized the issue.

“It’s not about the technology– we’re spending millions of dollars to do a major fiber-optic project in our city, so we’re very much supportive and believe it’s important for that,” he said. “But it’s a local control issue, too. We, as elected officials who have the best interest in our community, have no control over this.”

Signal Hill Mayor Edward Wilson also affirmed in an interview that city leaders are supportive of the bill’s intent, but not its method.

“It does enhance the infrastructure of technology. What it’s trying to do is cut down on the dead zones. So that concept is good. No one is arguing against the concept,” Wilson said. “But why would we not want to negotiate better?”

SB 649 had passed the Senate on May 31 and, after some amendment in committees, is scheduled for an Assembly Appropriations Committee hearing on Sept. 1. If approved, the bill could be voted on by the state Assembly as early as next week.

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