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The Great 5G Giveaway: Cities and States Race to Let Big Wireless Deploy 5G on the Cheap

In 2017, negotiations between the city of McAllen, Tex. and wireless companies over the cost of placing new wireless infrastructure neared agreement at $1,500 per network node, an amount not out of line with the kind of infrastructure fees being charged in other cities where utilities want to place their equipment in the public rights-of-way. But just before contracts were ready to sign, the wireless companies broke off negotiations with city officials and began lobbying for a new Texas state law that would set the terms and conditions for placing telecommunications infrastructure statewide regardless of the wishes of individual Texas towns and cities.

SB 1004 was the kind of bill companies like AT&T love. Drafted from talking points supplied by the telecom industry and introduced by a friendly legislator — Republican State Sen. Kelly Hancock, (dubbed “THE WORST” by Texas Monthly magazine) — AT&T and Hancock partnered up to push the legislation through the state legislature, with the help of more than 100 lobbyists working with a budget of $7.8 million, according to a Texas Monitor analysis.

AT&T counts Texas as its corporate home, and company spends lavishly to have its way. It has been the largest lobbying force in the state by far for at least two decades, with 108 registered lobbyists. In second place is TXU Energy Retail, which registered just 29 lobbyists. AT&T offers politicians in the states where it provides local phone service a continuous fountain of campaign contributions. Since 2007, AT&T has spent more than $2.2 million on Texas politicians alone. AT&T donated to 175 of the 181 members of the Texas House and Senate, and its legislative achievements are impressive, winning passage of 14 of the 28 bills the company supported or wrote. Hancock counts AT&T among his top corporate donors, along with the former Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

SB 1004 will cost Texas communities a substantial amount of local control over wireless infrastructure, along with millions of dollars in pole attachment and oversight fees. Hancock, who has no background in telecommunications, arbitrarily set fee caps on wireless facilities at $20 a year for locating equipment on an existing pole and $250 a year if a company attaches equipment on something else. To observers, it isn’t just a bargain for the wireless industry, it could also means some towns and cities could be forced to spend public tax dollars to manage and monitor wireless company infrastructure should something goes awry.

McAllen is among 31 cities in Texas fighting to overturn AT&T’s state law. The city is upset because SB 1004 strips its authority to manage public rights-of-way. By bending over backwards to the wireless industry, companies can put 5G small cells and other equipment just about anywhere with little recourse. In fact, the Texas law mandates companies use pre-existing street signs, traffic garages, and street/traffic lighting as antenna locations wherever possible, which is good news for AT&T but could cause visual pollution and potential safety issues for residents. With below-market attachment fees topping out at just $250, four major national wireless companies can sprout antennas all over town, whether they create eyesores or not.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, called that an “unconstitutionally low amount of money.”

“It’s mandatory that when private companies want to make a profit using public land that they pay a reasonable rental fee for it,” Sandlin told the Texas Monitor. “Just like if AT&T wanted to run these facilities through our backyard, we wouldn’t let them do it for free.”

Sandlin adds the wireless industry wants to be given special privileges under the guise of expanding internet access in return for getting cheap access to public rights-of-way, but they don’t want to be regulated like a public utility.

If the new law stands, it is estimated that Texas cities will lose up to $800 million a year in revenue from fees — money that will probably be made up by increasing taxes or other fees.

In Tennessee, the state has gone all out to hurry the passage of a similar law in hopes of convincing wireless companies to make the state one of the first targets for 5G expansion.

Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), believes clearing a path for rapid 5G deployment will attract billions of dollars of new investment in the state.

“It’s going to transform the world as we currently know it. We’re expecting speeds anywhere from 30 to 50 percent faster as far as connectivity is concerned,” Ketron told his colleagues in the Tennessee legislature. “It opens up that bandwidth for all the data, everything that we’re doing from texting to telemedicine to even autonomous vehicles.”

House Bill 2279 and its companion SB 2504 are written almost word for word on the recommendations of AT&T and other wireless lobbyists. Like a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments, all of AT&T’s legislative priorities can be found in both bills, and not by accident. The phone company’s lobbyists have worked hand in hand with other internet providers, lawmakers, and local governments and co-ops to push the bill for rapid passage. After four months, it is nearing the governor’s signature.

The handful of critics, mostly Democrats, have been reduced to offering concern about the bill’s impact on local self-governance. Sen. Lee Harris (D-Shelby County) told colleagues, “I’m inclined to support this bill, but it does give me pause that we would intervene in these negotiations and set a price,” referring to the bill’s capped application fee of $100 per small cell installation, with a $35 annual renewal fee.

Ketron has frequently defended the bill’s cap on fees, which most observers claim are substantially lower than what wireless companies expected to pay, by claiming he wanted to prevent cities and towns from “cashing in on poles because that would be passed on to all the users through their rate fees, and I know my bill is already high enough.”

Sen. Ketron moving HB 2279 forward in the Tennessee legislature on April 11, 2018.

The potential revenue hit to municipalities would normally be enough to rally opposition, but because of AT&T’s lobbying efforts, most cities and counties in Tennessee have remained neutral on the bill, signaling a virtual guarantee it will become law. The company has worked hard to try to reassure communities the new law will be revenue neutral and be sensitive to the aesthetic needs of local communities. The bill promises that in the event a small cell damages or brings down a pole, the owner of the equipment will be responsible to fix the damage or provide an identical replacement light or pole at the company’s expense.

But based on stories from other communities that have gotten small cell technology for existing 4G LTE networks, problems remain. The biggest issue for residents is visual clutter on poles in their front yards. Some companies also install “lawn refrigerator” cabinets that house backup batteries or other equipment to keep small cells operational in the event of a power outage. Residents frequently complain about these unsightly metal boxes that can appear overnight in the public right-of-way, sometimes right in front of their home, with no warning.

Some town engineers also question the safety of some installations, particularly if multiple carriers seek to place equipment on the same poles. Some have expressed concern about what impact the extra equipment might have in a vehicle collision that brings a pole down onto another vehicle. There are also broader implications once a town surrenders authority over its public rights-of-way to state officials.

Ketron’s personal knowledge of 5G technology and his credibility to deliver on the promises and claims he has made to his colleagues is also open to question. During a brief floor session to consider House Bill 2279, Ketron frequently became tongue-twisted explaining the merits of 5G networks, their functionality, and what benefits they will offer rural Tennessee consumers.

In rambling introductory remarks, Ketron claimed, “the connectivity speed through that bandwidth what 5G brings us […] all are going to be communicating through all that bandwidth of that data.” He also promised a colleague in rural Tennessee that 5G service had a real potential to solve the state’s rural broadband problems, despite the fact the technology would be very costly to deploy in rural areas because of required fiber backhaul and the limited range of each small cell.

The Tennessee Electric Cooperative believes 5G deployment will likely stop with the suburbs, unlikely to expand into rural areas because of its limited range.

“Because of this, we don’t anticipate it will ever see widespread use outside of densely populated areas,” Trent Scott, spokesman for the organization told the Memphis Daily News. “The economics of deploying current 5G technology in sparsely populated areas are going to be a challenge.”

But the idea of AT&T and other wireless companies spending billions on new wireless infrastructure in Tennessee attracts political support for the short-term jobs for installers. The future of 5G technology and its use with Tennessee’s smart grid and intelligent transportation projects of the future may explain why the bill has attracted 40 co-sponsors.

But on the local level in communities like McAllen, there is also recognition wireless companies stand to earn tens of billions from the next generation of wireless technology, and they will be able to earn that revenue at a relatively cheap cost if communities surrender their ability to leverage their publicly owned assets like rights of way. McAllen officials hoped to negotiate a new network of public hotspots to help bring internet access to those who cannot afford traditional internet subscriptions. If AT&T agreed, the city was willing to steeply discount their fees. But no companies showed any interest in the idea. With enthusiastic state legislators willing to introduce legislation tailor-made for those companies, they didn’t have to.

The Tennessee legislature debated passage of the state’s 5G-related legislation for just 15 minutes before passing it 32-1. But did members truly understand it? (14:44)

Wireless Lobby Sues Utah Over 36¢ Surcharge Companies Can’t Easily Pass On to Customers

The wireless industry’s largest lobbying group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, filed suit in a Utah federal court Wednesday to stop the state from imposing a 36 cent surcharge wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless cannot easily pass on to their customers.

The new fee, retroactively charged from the beginning of 2018, applies to all telephone lines other than prepaid wireless phones, and represents the chief funding mechanism for Utah’s Universal Public Telecommunications Service Support Fund, which supports providing service in high cost rural areas of Utah and the expenses attributed to Utah’s participation in the federal Telephone Lifeline program, which provides subsidized telephone service to the poor.

The CTIA is upset because its member companies will have to assess the surcharge on almost every customer with a landline or wireless postpaid phone in the state, including customers getting free wireless service through the federal Lifeline program. The CTIA argues that puts an unfair burden on companies, especially those asked to either eat the cost of the surcharge or attempt to collect 36¢ a month from Lifeline customers that currently do not receive bills from their providers.

The lobbying group called its options “a Hobson’s choice” between two bad ideas. Because wireless carriers don’t want to absorb the surcharge and pay for it out of current revenue, the alternatives are to either pass along the cost to customers or raise rates. CTIA’s complaint predominately focuses on what it calls the “absurd real world results” of wireless companies struggling to get paid back the 36¢ monthly surcharge:

Participants in these [Lifeline] programs are frequently members of “unbanked” communities, and even a monthly rate of $0.36 may prove an insurmountable obstacle to participation in the Lifeline program. Those without bank accounts or a credit card have no effective means to remit a surcharge of $0.36. If they choose to mail cash, they would have to spend more on postage than on the surcharge itself. Or they may need to purchase a money order, if such are available in increments of $0.36, and pay both the charges applicable to obtaining a money order and the cost of postage – all well in excess of the $0.36 due under the PSC Rule.

[…] The PSC Rule has a chilling effect on the introduction of service offers in the market today. Carriers that have an interest in introducing innovative service plans that have or are likely to have intrastate revenues near, at, or below $0.36 will have to determine whether to select a collection method illegally imposed on them under the PSC Rule or to not offer such service plans at all.

[…] Further, requiring the underlying wireless carrier to pay the required $0.36 per month UUSF surcharge in such third-party retail prepaid situations would not cure this discrimination, as the wireless carrier generally has no billing relationship with the end-user customer, and therefore no ability to pass the charge through to the end-user customer. Requiring wireless carriers to remit the UUSF surcharge in those situations, notwithstanding their inability to pass the surcharge through to the end-user customer, is equally discriminatory vis-à-vis service providers who can pass through the UUSF surcharge to customers.

The CTIA doesn’t dwell on the real world impact of its member companies, with revenues well into the billions of dollars, simply absorbing the 36¢ a month charged to their Utah customers as a cost of doing business. Instead, the lawsuit argues Utah cannot apply USF surcharges in a way that is “inconsistent with the requirements related to the federal universal service Lifeline program.”

CTIA argues the surcharge, when applied to Lifeline customers, unfairly increases rates for the most-needy. But the lobbying group was equally concerned the charges would not apply to competing prepaid wireless providers, because the Utah Public Service Commission lacks statutory authority to impose surcharges on those providers. The CTIA argues the surcharge is discriminatory and not competitively neutral, because the it allows third-party retailers of prepaid wireless telecommunications services like Tracfone to avoid the surcharge.

The CTIA is seeking a permanent injunction to stop the surcharges and has asked the court to order the defendants — essentially Utah’s taxpayers — to pay its court costs.

AT&T and Crown Castle Sign New Agreement Permitting 5G Cells on Existing Infrastructure

Phillip Dampier April 11, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

AT&T and Crown Castle, which owns many of the cell towers that AT&T and other wireless carriers use, have signed a new agreement allowing AT&T to lease space on existing Crown Castle towers to deploy 5G wireless infrastructure.

The key to the new agreement is streamlining the process of contracting for long-term space for small cells and other infrastructure that will be critical for 5G wireless deployments. AT&T also wants to more rapidly execute contracts to deploy wireless network upgrades to fulfill its obligations for FirstNet, the first responders emergency communications network.

“This agreement marks a significant milestone in our relationship with Crown Castle,” said Susan Johnson, executive vice president of global connections and supply chain. “It establishes a market-based framework and simplifies the lease management and administration process. This will allow us to streamline network projects to better serve our customers.”

The new agreement also covers traditional cell tower infrastructure for 4G LTE services. It will include provisions for long-term leasing, which will give AT&T additional stability in planning and service.

 

Crown Castle owns, operates and leases more than 40,000 cell towers and approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber supporting small cells and fiber solutions across every major U.S. market.

Sprint and T-Mobile Rekindle Merger Talks (Again)

The Wall Street Journal today reported Sprint has rekindled merger talks with Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, the third time such merger discussions have taken place in the last four years.

The newest round of preliminary discussions begin five months after earlier negotiations collapsed over the issue of which merger partner would ultimately control the combined company.

Analysts are uncertain if the latest round of talks will amount to anything, especially after watching the Trump Administration’s Justice Department aggressively fight the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., on antitrust grounds.

If Sprint and T-Mobile combine, it would create three large national carriers competing with each other and an assortment of smaller regional wireless carriers, possibly leading to price increases for consumers who have benefited from the last few years of aggressive sales and promotions launched by market disruptor T-Mobile USA and, to a lesser extent, Sprint.

A Sprint/T-Mobile combination would have nearly 100 million customers, making it America’s second largest wireless company just ahead of AT&T, which had 93 million U.S. subscribers at the end of 2017. Verizon Wireless would continue to be the nation’s largest wireless company with 116 million customers.

The FCC Four: The Top Special Interests Lobbying the FCC

March was a big month for lobbyists visiting the Federal Communications Commission, which opened the doors to wireless special interest groups for “ex parte” meetings with agency staffers that, in turn, brief the three Republicans and two Democrats that serve as FCC commissioners.

Last month’s ex parte filings reveal strong evidence of a coordinated, well-financed campaign by America’s wireless operators and cable companies to get the FCC to ease off regulations governing forthcoming 5G networks, particularly with respect to where tens of thousands of “small cell” antennas will be installed to deliver the service.

Four industry trade groups and companies are part of the concerted campaign to scale back third party control over where 5G infrastructure will end up. Some want to strip local governments of their power to oversee where 5G infrastructure will be placed, while others seek the elimination of laws and regulations that give everyone from historical societies to Native American tribes a say where next generation wireless infrastructure will go. The one point all four interests agree on — favoring pro-industry policies that give wireless companies the power to flood local communities with wireless infrastructure applications that come with automatic approval unless denied for “good cause” within a short window of time, regardless of how overwhelmed local governments are by the blizzard of paperwork.

Here are the big players:

The Competitive Carriers Association (CCA)

The CCA is primarily comprised of rural, independent, and smaller wireless companies. In short, a large percentage of wireless companies not named AT&T or Verizon Wireless are members of CCA. The CCA’s chief goal is to protect the interests of their members, who lack the finances and political pull of the top two wireless companies in the U.S. CCA lobbyists met ex parte with the FCC multiple times, submitting seven filings about their March meetings.

CCA’s top priority is to get rid of what they consider burdensome regulations about where members can place cell towers and antennas. They also want a big reduction in costly environmental, tribal, and historic reviews that are often required as part of a wireless buildout application. CCA lobbyists argue that multiple interests have their hands on CCA member applications, and fees can become “exorbitant” even before some basic reviews are completed. The CCA claims there have been standoffs between competing interests creating delays and confusion.

Costs are a relevant factor for most CCA members, which operate regional or local wireless networks often in rural areas. Getting a return on capital investment in rural wireless infrastructure can be challenging, and CCA claims unnecessary costs are curtailing additional rural expansion.

NCTA – The Internet & Television Association

The large cable industry lobbyist managed to submit eight ex parte filings with the FCC in March alone, making the NCTA one of the most prolific frequent visitors to the FCC’s headquarters in Washington.

The NCTA was there to discuss the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band, which is of particular interest to cable companies like Charter Communications, which wants to get into the wireless business on its own terms. Cable lobbyists, under the pretext of trying to avoid harmful interference, want to secure a large percentage of the CBRS band for their licensed use, at the expense of unlicensed consumers and their wireless industry competitors.

The cable industry wants CBRS spectrum to be wide, spacious, and contiguous for its cable industry members, which should open the door to faster speeds. The lobbyists want to make life difficult for unlicensed use of the band, potentially requiring cumbersome use regulations or costly equipment to verify a lack of interference to licensed users. They also want their traffic protected from other licensed users’ interference.

CTIA – The Wireless Association

The wireless industry’s largest lobbying group made multiple visits to the FCC in March and filed 10 ex parte communications looking for a dramatic reduction in local zoning and placement laws for the next generation of small cells and 5G networks.

The CTIA has been arguing with tribal interests recently. Tribes want the right to review cell tower placement and the environmental impacts of new equipment and construction. The CTIA wants a sped-up process for reviewing cell tower and site applications with a strict 30-day time limit, preferably with automatic approval for any unconsidered applications after the clock runs out. Although not explicitly stated, there have been grumblings in the past that tribal interests are inserting themselves into the review process in hopes of collecting application and review fees as a new revenue source. Wireless companies frequently question whether tribal review is even appropriate for some applications.

Sprint has had frequent run-ins with tribal interests demanding several thousand dollars for each application’s review under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which is supposed to protect heritage and historical sites.

In Houston, Sprint deployed small cells around the NRG Stadium, but found itself paying fees to at least a dozen Indian Tribal Nations as part of the NHPA. The NHPA opens the door to a lot of Native Americans interests because of how the law is written. Any Tribal Nation can express an interest in a project, even when it is to be placed on public or private property that is not considered to be tribal land. In Houston, Sprint found itself paying $6,850 per small cell site, not including processing fees, which raised the cost to $7,535 per antenna location. Those fees only covered tribal reviews, not the cost of installation or equipment. Some tribes offered better deals than others. The Tonkawa Tribe has 611 remaining members, mostly in Oklahoma. But they sought and got $200 in review fees for the 23 small cell sites deployed around the stadium. The Kiowa Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, not Texas, charged $1,500 for the 23 applications it reviewed.

Sprint complains it has paid millions in such fees over the last 13 years and no tribe to date has ever asked to meet with Sprint or suggest one of its towers or cell sites would intrude on historic or tribal property.

“Tribal Nations are continuing to demand higher fees and designate larger and larger areas of interest,” says Sprint. “At present, there are no constraints on the amount of fees a Tribal Nation may require or the geographic areas for which it can require payment for review. The tribal historic review process remains in place even in situations—such as utility rights-of-way—where the Commission has exempted state historic review.”

The CTIA wants major changes to the NHPA and other regulations regarding cell tower and antenna placement before the stampede of 5G construction begins.

Verizon

Verizon has been extremely busy visiting with the FCC during the month of March, filing 10 ex parte communications, also complaining about the tribal reviews of wireless infrastructure.

Verizon argues it wants to expand wireless service, not effectively subsidize Native American tribes.

“The draft order’s provisions to streamline tribal reviews for larger wireless broadband facilities will likewise speed broadband deployment and eliminate costs, thus freeing up resources that can, in turn, be used to deploy more facilities,” Verizon argued in one filing.

Verizon has also been carefully protecting its most recent very high frequency spectrum buyouts. It wants the FCC to force existing satellite services to share the 29.1-29.25 GHz band for 5G wireless internet. Verizon has a huge 150 MHz swath of spectrum in this band, allowing for potentially extremely high-speed wireless service, even in somewhat marginal reception areas.

“Verizon assured the commission that even when sharing with other services, we would be able to make use of the 150 MHz of spectrum in this block to provide high-speed broadband service to American consumers,” said one filing.

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