A brazen cell phone power grab
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.
Local governments should decide where cell phone equipment goes.