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Verizon Wireless Sues Rochester, N.Y. for Discrimination Over Forthcoming 5G Small Cells

Verizon Wireless has sued the City of Rochester, N.Y. in a potentially precedent-setting case, for demanding excessive and discriminatory fees to use public rights-of-way to deploy a fiber backhaul network and hundreds of small cells to support the introduction of 5G wireless service in the community.

The lawsuit, Cellco Partnership (d/b/a Verizon Wireless) v. City of Rochester seeks a declaratory judgment acknowledging that local laws regarding the use of rights-of-way by telecommunications companies have been largely overridden by the Trump Administration’s Federal Communications Commission. Under FCC guidelines, the maximum compensation rate a city can generally collect is $270 annually for each small cell site, far less than what the City of Rochester hopes to collect from telecommunications companies planning to dig up streets and place hundreds of small cell antennas on utility and light poles across the city.

The two parties are far apart on what defines fair and just compensation. In early 2019, the City of Rochester introduced a new fee schedule that seeks $1,500 annually for the use of each publicly owned utility or light pole, and $1,000 per standalone “smart pole” erected by a wireless company to support a small cell. Verizon Wireless wants to pay no more than $270 annually for either type.

The City also wants compensation to cover “administrative costs for retaining and managing documents and records,” “costs for managing, coordinating and responding to public concerns and complaints,” and “the costs of the City’s self-insurance.” Verizon Wireless’ attorneys argue that the FCC’s “presumptive limit” of $270 annually is all-inclusive, and therefore the fees requested are inherently unreasonable.

The City ordinance is also designed to discourage providers from installing cables on existing utility poles, preferring underground installation.

“Aerial installation of fiber or other telecommunications facilities and accessory equipment strung between poles, buildings, or other facilities, is strongly discouraged due to area weather, safety concerns, limited capacity, and aesthetic disturbances,” the ordinance reads. But Verizon Wireless argues the extra fees demanded by the City for underground burial of fiber optic cable are illegal under federal law.

“The Code’s ‘underground’ fee structure is not a reasonable approximation of actual cost, is not objectively determined, and is discriminatory,” Verizon Wireless argues.

The City’s fees for fiber optic cable installation are significant. Verizon Wireless’ lawsuit notes fees start at $10,000 for up to 2,500 linear feet of installed fiber optic cable, plus an additional $1.50 for each additional foot from 2,500-12,500 feet and $0.75 for each additional foot above 12,500 feet. After the first year, fees continue at $5,000 annually for up to 2,500 feet, $1 for each additional foot from 2,500-12,500 feet, and $0.50 for each additional foot above 12,500 feet. Somewhat lower fees apply if Verizon places its fiber cables in an existing conduit with other cables, or if it uses directional boring to place conduit and wiring without disturbing lawns, roads, or sidewalks.

Curtin

Verizon Wireless’ attorneys argue the fees cannot possibly reflect the City’s true costs because the charges are the same regardless if Verizon installed three feet or 2,000 feet of fiber optic cable.

But City Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin told the Democrat & Chronicle the city’s new fee schedule is comparable to what other cities are charging, and the City is planning more restrictions to keep providers from repeatedly digging up streets and yards to place new cable and equipment.

“This is a serious problem with people digging up the same right of way every other day and not repairing it,” Curtin told the newspaper.

The City is also exploring passing a new “dig once” policy that would incentivize providers to coordinate fiber installation to place wiring and equipment in a single shared conduit in return for lower fees. But providers like Verizon Wireless consider it in their competitive advantage to wire cities like Rochester before their competitors do.

“To better serve its customers and the City and to begin to serve new customers and provide new services, Verizon Wireless seeks to extend, densify, and upgrade its wireless network infrastructure [in Rochester], including to install additional Small Wireless Facilities to support the provision of current and next-generation telecommunications services such as 5G and to deploy fiber to connect these facilities. To successfully do this, Verizon Wireless requires new approvals from [the City of Rochester] to access City property,” Verizon’s lawsuit states. Because of the City’s fees and policies, “Verizon Wireless has been, and will continue to be, damaged and irreparably harmed, […] [including] an effective prohibition on Verizon Wireless’s ability to provide telecommunications services in the affected area of the City.”

In short, Verizon Wireless is threatening not to deploy 5G service in the area if the City successfully defends its fees and requirements.

Curtin argues Verizon Wireless is the only provider unwilling to comply with the City’s requirements, while others are moving forward under the new ordinance. One provider likely covered by Curtin’s claim is residential fiber overbuilder Greenlight Networks, which has installed fiber to the home service across several city neighborhoods for the past several years. But in 2019, Greenlight began focusing on installations in suburbs west of Rochester, and several city neighborhoods proposed for service have languished for years with “easements required” status, which could reflect Greenlight’s reluctance or ability to pay the City’s new fees.

Verizon has been the most aggressive wireless provider in Western and Central New York with respect to the proposed 5G service expansion. In addition to being the incumbent local telephone company in several New York cities (excluding Rochester), it has also offered spotty FiOS fiber to the home service in several suburbs of Buffalo and Syracuse.

A small cell

In contrast with Rochester, the City of Syracuse decided to effectively “partner” with Verizon Wireless to deploy 5G small cells to be considered America’s “first fully 5G city.” To win Verizon over, the City mothballed its existing fee policy in 2019 that charged $950 per small cell tower, resetting the rate to match the FCC’s presumed maximum of $270 annually. In return, Verizon has tentatively agreed to place up to 600 smart cell poles around the city, paying $162,000 a year. Verizon also agreed to pay a $500 application fee for each pole project (covering up to a maximum of five poles per project). Nobody is certain whether 600 smart cells are enough to saturate the city with 5G coverage, where exactly Verizon will ultimately place the small cells, or exactly when.

Ken Schmidt, president of Steel in the Air, a consultant to public and private landowners and municipalities on matters related to wireless infrastructure valuation, offered to advise the City of Syracuse for free about its agreement with Verizon Wireless, but the City never returned his calls, despite his direct experience working with other cities that negotiated with Verizon Wireless over 5G smart cells, pole attachment fees, and antenna placement rules.

“Syracuse seems to have bent over backward for Verizon,” Schmidt argues on his blog. “Make no mistake, there are benefits to becoming a 5G city, but this agreement does no more for Syracuse than it does for other cities where Verizon promised the same thing. At least some of the other cities didn’t enter into such a one-sided agreement. For example, SacramentoSan Diego and San Jose negotiated better terms and conditions than Syracuse did, and will have a similarly robust small cell deployment.”

Many consultants recommend that cities consider whether Verizon’s threats not to deploy 5G service are real, especially considering the company’s PR claims that moving forward with 5G is essential to Verizon’s network expansion.

Schmidt

Schmidt acknowledges the current FCC has a vested interest in helping large wireless companies deploy 5G infrastructure with a minimum of interference or fees from local governments.

“While the City could have negotiated a higher amount for the pole access rights or permit fees, it would have had to demonstrate that its actual costs in reviewing small cell applications and maintaining the rights-of-way were higher than the nominal fees allowed by the FCC,” Schmidt said.

Verizon’s lawyers appeared to outmaneuver the City’s attorneys by winning a number of concessions for Verizon that Syracuse will have to live with for up to 45 years. Schmidt’s recommendations may be useful to other cities, including Rochester, wrestling with these issues.

Schmidt:

Syracuse granted rights to Verizon for upward of 45 years when it didn’t have to. The city signed a master license agreement for 20 years, which allows Verizon to install poles under individual pole licenses that run up to 25 years from the date the pole was installed. Thus, if a pole is installed in year 20, it will be there for another 25 years. In short, the city is entering a possible 45-year agreement even though there is no legal requirement to do so by the FCC or any other agency. While Verizon surely prefers a much longer agreement, other cities are entering much shorter, 10-year agreements with Verizon. Verizon retained the right to terminate “at any time for any reason or no reason by written notice to the city,” but the city does not have the same right. So, the city is now committed to this specific agreement legally, regardless of what happens with technology in the future.

The agreement entered into by the city concedes unnecessary rights to Verizon under contract law. The agreement is substantially the same as other agreements proposed by Verizon to other cities. It attempts to incorporate many of the standards from the FCC Order into the license agreement. From a legal perspective, these clauses did not need to be in the license agreement. If Verizon felt the city was not adhering to the FCC order, Verizon by default has the option of requesting relief from the FCC or filing in federal court for injunction or damages. However, by adding the language in the license agreement, Verizon can now file in state court on a civil claim if Verizon believes the city is in breach of the agreement and collect monetary damages. This is absolutely of no benefit to Syracuse.

Other cities have received additional compensation in the form of public safety or “internet of things” monitoring and services, and higher fees to help pay for additional staff to review small cells applications. Syracuse received nothing. In fairness, the other cities are bigger and more important to Verizon than Syracuse. Nonetheless, the only concession Verizon appears to have made to Syracuse is the requirement for Verizon to monitor a limited set of small cells for compliance with applicable radio frequency emission standards. Verizon did not commit to deploying a certain number of small cells by any date. It is not required to deploy in the poorer areas of the city. And it did not commit to smart city initiatives or research on how 5G can benefit the residents of Syracuse.

The agreement gives the city limited rights to terminate, even if health risks are identified and proven. The city, in what appears to be an effort to appease its citizens that small cells are safe, inserted language that requires Verizon to test up to 5% of the small cells annually to confirm that they meet the minimum applicable health, safety and radio frequency regulations. The city could also test on its own, but only to confirm compliance with applicable FCC standards. By agreeing to a long-term license with limited rights to terminate, the city could be legally committed to Verizon small cells in the public right of way even if there is ample evidence that they should be removed, unless the FCC revokes its order.

By agreeing to such a one-sided agreement, the city has condemned itself to agree to similar agreements with any company providing wireless services who want to deploy in the right-of-way. Under the FCC Order and previous case law regarding the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the city may not discriminate between similar providers of wireless services. By agreeing to the terms with Verizon, the city will have a difficult time agreeing to different terms with other providers.

FCC Moves to Make Cable TV Franchise Fee Rules More Cable Industry Friendly

Phillip Dampier August 7, 2019 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug 1 (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week voted 3-2 to tighten rules governing the franchise fees paid by cable companies to local authorities, a move that cities warn could result in public access channels going off the air or in municipalities losing free service.

Congress previously capped the franchise fees that cable operators pay for using public property, among other factors, at 5% of gross revenue on cable bills. The FCC vote requires non-financial “in kind” contributions made by cable operators must be assigned a value and counted against the cap.

Those costs that now must be counted against the cap include contributions for public, educational, and government access channels, institutional networks and other services like free cable for municipal buildings.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “every dollar paid in excessive fees is a dollar that by definition cannot and will not be invested in upgrading and expanding networks.”

Cable operators pay roughly $3 billion annually in franchise fees to state and local governments.

New York told the FCC all city fire stations get free cable and internet service from cable providers.

“There are no viable alternative services available to the city. The only potential long-term solution would be to build a parallel network which will take years and cost a massive amount of money,” the city said in a July 25 letter.

Milton, Massachusetts, which noted it uses an institutional network for police and school security cameras and municipal internet access, said it could lose government access channel programming.

Pai

The FCC also voted Thursday to bar municipalities from regulating or imposing fees on most non-cable services, including broadband Internet service.

NCTA – the Internet & Television Association representing major cable companies like Comcast Corp, Charter Communications Inc and Cox Communications Inc – said the vote “will help promote broadband investment, deployment, and innovation, to the benefit of all Americans.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said “free or discounted service to cash-strapped schools, provision of critical (institutional network service), discounts to vulnerable communities … are a small imposition given the value received by providers.”

He added it “risks causing grave harm to local communities.”

Republicans commissioners point out that cable companies have been forced to fund other events like ice cream socials or offer free service for government-owned golf courses.

Local communities including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles told the FCC in a joint statement local governments will “be forced to make difficult decisions about reductions in service (i.e., coverage of governmental meetings, community media, and broadband to schools) or increases in local revenue sources.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bernadette Baum

Frontier’s Repeated 911 Outages Worry West Virginia’s Panhandle Communities

Ohio and Marshall counties are located in West Virginia’s Panhandle region, sandwiched between the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Emergency services officials in West Virginia’s Panhandle region are “scared” about Frontier Communications’ ability to provide reliable access to 911 after four outages in three months, and they are reaching out to the Federal Communications Commission and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) for help.

Public officials in Ohio and Marshall counties, sandwiched between the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders near Wheeling, are increasingly concerned Frontier may be no longer able to provide reliable basic service in the region.

“I’ve got to be honest with you. It scares the heck out of me,” Theresa Russell, Ohio County’s 911 director, told WTRF News. “I worry that after these types of incidents occur, I’m going to find out that somebody needed us and they had no way of getting through.”

Two recent outages occurred around midnight, one of which Frontier later said was a “planned outage.” But local officials claim Frontier never notified affected communities, preventing them from giving the public an alternate number to call in case of an emergency.

The other outages were unplanned, one impacting nine West Virginia counties that lasted well over an hour.

Frontier officials have increasingly responded to these outages by stressing the economic difficulties it faces serving remote areas in states where it is costly to provide service. In a statement, Frontier told the TV station that it “takes its commitment to serve West Virginians and support 911 services seriously.”

Frontier:

“Frontier provides service in the most rural areas of West Virginia where other providers choose not to invest to deliver service and where the challenges of remoteness are greatest. We work to promptly address service interruptions that occur from time-to-time because of severe weather events, vehicle accidents, third party construction damage to our facilities and other causes.

“We continue to evaluate and execute strategies to improve our service and ensure our customers have access to reliable and affordable service.”

WTRF-TV reports West Virginia’s Panhandle region is frightened about Frontier’s repeated 911 service outages. (1:36)

FCC Opens Probe Into Sinclair Disclosures on Failed Tribune Deal; Questions Sinclair’s Candor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission has opened a new investigation into whether Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc engaged in misrepresentations or a lack of candor in its failed effort to win approval for a $3.9 billion bid to purchase Tribune Media Co.

In a June 25 letter to Sinclair posted Wednesday on the FCC’s website, the government agency directed Sinclair to answer a series of questions and provide documents by July 9, warning that “failing to respond accurately and completely to this (letter) constitutes a violation of the act and our rules.”

Sinclair did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

An administrative judge in March dropped a hearing into allegations that Sinclair, the largest U.S. broadcast station owner, may have misled regulators. Judge Jane Halprin added however that the allegations “are extremely serious charges that reasonably warrant a thorough examination.”

Tribune terminated the sale of 42 TV stations in 33 markets to Sinclair, which has 192 stations, in August. A month earlier the FCC referred the deal for a hearing, questioning Sinclair’s candor over the planned sale of some stations and suggesting Sinclair would effectively retain control over them.

The collapse of the deal, which was backed by U.S. President Donald Trump, potentially ended Sinclair’s hopes of building a national conservative-leaning TV powerhouse that might have rivaled Twenty-First Century Fox Inc’s Fox News.

Sinclair in March said it continues “to maintain that we were completely candid, transparent and honest with the FCC during its review of our proposed acquisition of Tribune Media.”

Andrew Schwartzman, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the FCC could have waited to address the issues when Sinclair’s licenses were up for renewal, but said the inquiry was “inevitable” given the FCC’s prior findings.

After the deal collapsed, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau said it did not oppose dismissal of the hearing proceeding.

Part of a letter sent by the FCC to Sinclair Broadcasting.

Nexstar Media Group Inc said in December it will buy Tribune in a $4.1 billion deal that would make it the largest regional U.S. TV station operator. The deal is still under review by the Justice Department and the FCC.

Democrats accused Sinclair of slanting news coverage in favor of Republicans. Trump last year criticized the Republican-led FCC for not approving the Tribune deal, saying on Twitter it “would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People.”

In 2017, the FCC said it was fining Sinclair $13.38 million after it failed to properly disclose that paid programming that aired on local TV stations was sponsored by a cancer institute.

In the latest inquiry, Sinclair could face new fines.

In May, Walt Disney Co said it would sell its interests in 21 regional sports networks and Fox College Sports to Sinclair for $9.6 billion.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Stephen Coates

Reuters Exclusive: T-Mobile, Sprint Could Sell Boost Prepaid for Up to $3 Billion, Potential Bidders Say

(Reuters) – A group of potential buyers are preparing bids for prepaid wireless brand Boost Mobile in an upcoming sale valuing the offshoot of U.S. wireless carriers T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp at up to $3 billion, interested buyers told Reuters.

The $26 billion deal between T-Mobile and Sprint won approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission last week after the two carriers offered concessions. It included the sale of Boost to reduce the combined company’s market share in the prepaid wireless business, where customers pay for phone service at the beginning of the month and are not required to pass a credit check.

While the deal awaits a ruling from the U.S. Department of Justice, interested parties are already preparing bids. The sale process is expected to begin after the Justice Department’s review.

Q Link Wireless, a prepaid brand and the third-largest provider of federally assisted wireless plans, is putting together a package to bid for Boost with private equity backing and could pay between $1.8 billion to $3 billion, founder and Chief Executive Issa Asad told Reuters.

The price will depend on the quality of Boost’s customers, such as their level of churn, or the rate of customer cancellations, the devices they are using, and what type of phone plan they are on, none of which the companies have disclosed, he said.

This month, analysts at Cowen estimated Boost has 7 million to 8 million customers and a transaction could be valued at $4.5 billion if the deal included wireless spectrum, or the airwaves that carry data, and facilities. Sprint has not disclosed the number of Boost customers.

Stephen Stokols, chief executive officer of prepaid wireless company FreedomPop, said an undisclosed private equity group he is speaking with have placed Boost’s future value at about $4 billion, such as in an initial public offering.

While FreedomPop is not a bidder, Stokols said he is advising a private equity group preparing a bid. If that bid succeeds, he believes the group would combine their acquisition with FreedomPop and have him lead a combined company with the Boost assets.

Peter Adderton, founder of Boost Mobile who sold the U.S. business to Nextel in 2004, which was then acquired by Sprint, has also said he is interested in buying back Boost. He declined to comment on his valuation for the business.

Adderton said he and his lawyers have urged regulators to require T-Mobile and Sprint to also divest wireless spectrum to ensure Boost will be a viable competitor in the market.

Adderton added that regulators must also ensure the new T-Mobile does not employ anticompetitive practices to harm Boost, and the contract between the companies should be non-exclusive, which would allow Boost to buy network access from other carriers.

The current sale agreement is devoid of details, but with the right terms, “we can create a dynamic player that will compete in the market,” Adderton said of Boost.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker

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