A brazen cell phone power grab

San Francisco Chronicle - - OPINION -

San Fran­cisco has hundreds of them: slim cylin­ders and flat boxes strapped to util­ity poles that serve as mini-cell tow­ers to speed up wire­less ser­vice. The de­vices are es­sen­tial for any­one car­ry­ing a smart­phone or tablet, but the sub­ject is breed­ing a bat­tle over money and po­lit­i­cal con­trol.

Tele­com firms such as Ver­i­zon and AT&T are push­ing Sacra­mento to pass a law that would essen­tially re­move the con­trol cities and coun­ties now have over where the equip­ment goes and how much lo­cal­i­ties can charge. In San Fran­cisco’s case, the loss could to­tal in the mil­lions, ac­cord­ing to Su­per­vi­sor Mark Far­rell, an op­po­nent of the mea­sure, SB649.

His ar­gu­ment, backed by scores of other lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tions, is as about as basic as home rule gets. Cities, not Sacra­mento, should have the fi­nal say on what private in­dus­try can build in the public right of way.

The tele­coms are sell­ing the mea­sure as a way to stream­line ap­provals and im­prove cov­er­age, an ap­peal­ing idea to any­one who’s had a call dropped or Face­book ses­sion cut off. But th­ese com­pa­nies also want to curb the fees that lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties can charge to only a few hun­dred dol­lars per de­vice.

In San Fran­cisco’s ex­pe­ri­ence, nearly all of the mini-cell tow­ers are ap­proved, mak­ing the ar­gu­ment about time­li­ness sus­pect. The ex­ist­ing rules give tele­coms ready ac­cess to phone poles and util­ity posts as a way to fill in broader cell phone ser­vice that can be dis­rupted by tall build­ings, thick walls or rolling land­scape. Also, as wire­less needs grow, more band­width to han­dle the traf­fic is needed. Cities have re­sponded with lease agree­ments and worked out ar­range­ments to put the wire­less boxes in the right spots.

This bill would shred that process. The mea­sure, which is show­ing up in nearly iden­ti­cal shape in other states, is about cut­ting ex­penses and avoid­ing lo­cal over­sight. Health con­cerns about cell phone tow­ers are not an is­sue in this dis­pute since that topic is gov­erned by fed­eral rules.

The bill has al­ready shot through the state Se­nate and faces its first test be­fore the As­sem­bly’s Lo­cal Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day. That panel should heed the crit­i­cism from their home com­mu­ni­ties and stop a mea­sure that sub­verts lo­cal con­trol.

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments should de­cide where cell phone equip­ment goes.

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