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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.

Deutsche Telekom Loses All-You-Can-Watch StreamOn Dispute in Germany Over Net Neutrality Violation

While net neutrality in the United States has been neutered by the Republican-controlled FCC, the concept of an online level playing field is alive and well in Germany, and T-Mobile’s parent company Deutsche Telekom (DT) just got called out for a foul ball.

The German telecom giant has lost its legal battle with Germany’s telecom regulator, the Federal Network Agency (Regulator Bundesnetzagentur) over StreamOn, its all-you-can-stream mobile video product that does not count against customer usage allowances. The company introduced the unlimited video streaming service in Germany in 2017, emulating a similar service available in the United States that offers zero rated mobile video content at a reduced video resolution. An appeals court in Münster this week ruled that the German regulator was correct to forbid DT from continuing to offer StreamOn to customers in its present form for two reasons:

  • StreamOn was only available to T-Mobile customers inside Germany or those who visited the country, violating Europe’s “roam like at home” rules that require carriers to not restrict or charge more for mobile services or features when traveling between member states of the European Union.
  • StreamOn violates German net neutrality rules by delivering only T-Mobile approved, speed-throttled, low resolution video content that won’t count against a customer’s usage cap.

“StreamOn must conform to the ‘roam like at home’ principle and customers must have video streaming available in an unthrottled bandwidth,” said Federal Network Agency president Jochen Homann. “The rule of equal treatment is a cornerstone of European net neutrality regulations. The principle of equal treatment has made the internet a driver of innovation, and the diversity of applications and services benefits all consumers.”

Hohmann

DT immediately contested the regulator’s decision and sued. The case has been drifting through German courts since December 2017, with the most recent ruling in favor of the regulator issued by an appeals court, which declared its ruling to be final.

DT has claimed it finds the regulator’s objections “very puzzling indeed,” claiming StreamOn has been wildly popular in the United States and Germany. Two years ago, it warned that if the courts upheld the regulator’s ruling, it would force the company to stop offering it.

“The Bonn-based regulatory authority is ordering us to also offer StreamOn in other EU countries. It bases this order on the EU Roaming Regulation,” DT said in a statement in 2017. “Fulfilling the order would mean the end of our free service, because we would not be able to offer it cost-effectively in other countries.”

Despite its threat to shutter StreamOn in Germany, the company claimed this week it would continue offering the service for the time being, without increasing prices.

“We are delighted that the court has confirmed our interpretation of the law,” a Federal Network Agency spokesman said after the decision was announced. “We will take quick action to ensure that Telekom adjusts its product accordingly.”

“We expect the [Federal Network Agency] to allow an appropriate amount of time to make the necessary adjustments,” a DT spokesman said. “We are convinced that StreamOn is a legal product and will explore all our legal options.”

Maine Considers New Law Forcing Cable Companies to Sell TV Channels A-La-Carte

Charter Spectrum serves a significant part of the state of Maine.

The Maine state government is reviewing a measure that would require all cable operators in the state to offer customers the chance to buy individual cable channels instead of being forced into a large and costly package of dozens, if not hundreds of unwanted TV channels.

“The senior citizens in my area want to watch the Boston Red Sox,” says Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, an independent from Friendship. “The package that Spectrum is offering in Maine that includes the Red Sox costs about a hundred bucks. These people are making $800 bucks a month on Social Security. They’re bemoaning to me at the doors, you know, ‘I can’t afford television anymore Jeff.’ And they grew up in an era when television was free.”

Maine Public Radio reports Evangelos’ solution is an insertion of a single sentence into the state franchising law:

A cable system operator shall offer subscribers the option of purchasing access to cable channels, or programs on cable channels, individually.

The proposed change won support from a state legislative committee, but scorn from cable industry lobbyists that claim the proposed measure violates federal law.

Chris Hodgdon, a Comcast lobbyist, pointed to the specific statute forbidding states from telling cable operators how to conduct business: “No state shall regulate the products, rates, services of a cable provider.”

Charter Spectrum’s regional lobbyist Melinda Kinney warned any such law would likely face immediate court challenges. Kinney complained the measure was unfair because it targets cable operators while excluding satellite and streaming providers. But consumer advocates argue that the law could actually help the cable industry as cord-cutting becomes a national phenomenon. Subscribers agree.

“I’d sign back up for cable TV in a minute if I could pick my own channels and pay a reasonable price,” said Jack Winters, 71, a former Comcast customer near Brunswick. “Comcast makes you take all or nothing so I took nothing. I miss not getting Fox News Channel, Turner Classic Movies, and Hallmark, but my bank account doesn’t.”

Sen. Angus King, the independent senator from Maine, has done his part to investigate whether such a state law would violate federal deregulation measures. He took the proposal to the FCC.

Patrick Webre, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau responded that no state has passed such a law before, so he couldn’t say much:

“In your letter you asked whether a state mandate that a cable operator provide a-la-carte services would be pre-empted by federal law. This poses a question of first impression, and we could not locate any specific Commission rules that addresses your exact issue. Thus we are not in a position to express an opinion on the question you raise.”

Under the Trump Administration, however, the Republican majority controlling the FCC would likely oppose the measure because it would introduce new regulations on the industry, something that has historically been anathema to Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly. Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr, formerly a lawyer for Wiley Rein, which represents the interests of several large telecom companies, would likely also oppose the measure.

The bill now moves to the full Legislature on a tri-partisan vote of 8-2 and will be debated first in the House.

A proposed new law would require cable operators in Maine to sell individual cable channels to customers. (4:08)

‘Drive-By Pai’ Takes Out Consumer Interests by Favoring T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai found a lot to like about the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint and has recommended his fellow commissioners approve the transaction after the companies offered new commitments to ease anti-competitive and anti-trust concerns.

That typically means the FCC’s 3-2 Republican majority will quickly approve the deal in a forthcoming vote, with three Republicans in favor and two Democrats opposed, if tradition holds.

Pai’s support for the merger is hardly surprising. Since joining the FCC as a commissioner in the second half of the Obama Administration, Pai has consistently opposed every pro-consumer item on the FCC’s docket. He loves industry-consolidating mergers, hates telecom companies being forced to open their businesses to competition on things like set-top boxes, and considers almost all pro-consumer protection policies from net neutrality to merger deal conditions examples of “overregulation” that he argues are harmful to the free market and investment.

The troubled merger, which would create what we will call T-Sprint, has remained under review for months, recently stalled over revelations the two companies tailored the transaction to appeal to President Trump. T-Mobile executives spent $195,000 repeatedly renting rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and spent large sums hiring Trump-connected “advisors” including Reince Priebus and Corey Lewandowski. The merger pitch was changed to emphasize its impact on rapidly growing 5G networks, a talking point favorite of President Trump, who wants to beat the Chinese over the development of next generation wireless networks.

The merger must win approval from both the FCC and the Justice Department. The latter is said to be troubled about the anti-competitive impact of reducing the number of national wireless carriers from four to three. Such a consolidation would likely permanently change the wireless competition paradigm, because there has been no interest among new entrants to construct multi-billion dollar national cellular networks to compete with established wireless companies.

On Monday, T-Mobile and Sprint delivered additional concessions which seem to have won the approval of Mr. Pai.

“Two of the FCC’s top priorities are closing the digital divide in rural America and advancing United States leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity,” Pai said in a statement Monday. “The commitments made today by T-Mobile and Sprint would substantially advance each of these critical objectives.”

But a closer examination of “T-Sprint’s concessions” shows there is remarkably little there to protect competition and consumers:

  • A proposed spin off of prepaid Boost Mobile, which relies on the weaker Sprint network, is hardly much of a concession considering it will likely be impacted by the decommissioning of Sprint’s network, requiring at least some customers to buy new equipment that works on T-Mobile’s network. T-Sprint would also continue to control Boost competitors Virgin Mobile and MetroPCS, putting Boost at a distinct disadvantage.
  • The “nationwide” 5G network promised by T-Sprint is replete with fine print. The company will not be formally assessed on its expansion progress for three years, has demanded that T-Mobile’s own employees be allowed to conduct network performance tests — a conflict of interest, and that if it fails to meet its own proposed metrics, the FCC must forego the use of its regulatory forfeiture powers. Instead, the company agrees to pay “voluntary” fines if it fails coverage expansion commitments that are open to wide interpretation and litigation.
  • T-Sprint agreed to expand its “5G” coverage, but will rely heavily on existing macro cell towers and low and mid-band spectrum, shared by a much larger number of users than millimeter wave/small cell technology. That will probably deliver a more modest, incremental upgrade over existing 4G LTE technology, not a game-changer that can deliver gigabit speeds to wireless customers. Nothing precludes AT&T and Verizon from deploying similar upgrades without a competition-crushing merger between the third and fourth largest competitors.
  • T-Sprint’s proposed wireless home broadband replacement does not include a commitment to provide unlimited service. In fact, vague language in the commitment letter suggests T-Sprint will offer the service with a performance and usage expectation akin to other fixed wireless networks. That likely means customers will endure a data cap and speeds that are not comparable to wired technology. Once the company has signed up 9.5 million home broadband customers, any commitments offered to regulators about that service automatically expire.
  • The FCC is expected to give up much of its regulatory authority in return for T-Sprint’s commitments. If T-Sprint walks away from its commitments and not invest billions on its network expansion, it can pay a much smaller fine and have its merger obligations disappear. The FCC will not be able to use its more effective compliance power: forfeiture penalties.

T-Sprint’s argument is that this transaction will accelerate the deployment of 5G technology in a war for 5G supremacy with China. But exactly what technology is deployed, on what spectrum, using small cells or macro cell towers, makes a lot of difference. China’s wireless companies are owned and controlled by the Chinese government, which is also underwriting some of the costs. America’s networks are financed with private capital (and customer bills). T-Sprint’s 5G plans are also far less ambitious than those from AT&T and Verizon, and the cost to long-term competition is too high. The FCC should know that.

Congress has noticed that this merger has been rejected before during the Obama Administration for being anti competitive. Nothing has changed with respect to that. But T-Mobile’s lobbying sure has — this time trying to appeal to the Trump Administration for approval. Pai is certainly on board, and that could cost American consumers plenty.

Most telling of all is Wall Street’s reaction to today’s news. A merger that is being sold as as an AT&T/Verizon killer appears to be anything but. Verizon stock rose by 4.2% and AT&T by 4%. Investors recognize that consolidation can mean only one thing: higher prices. It means the end of the wireless price war that had Sprint and T-Mobile taking potshots at their larger rivals, forcing them to cut prices and bring back unlimited data plans.

It would be ruinous for T-Sprint to continue slashing prices and taunting AT&T and Verizon with costly promotions and giveaways. AT&T and Verizon expect T-Sprint will join their comfortable cartel with suspiciously similar plans and pricing, while firing up to 30,000 redundant workers and decommissioning Sprint’s wireless network. That last fact is well known on Wall Street, too. Cellphone tower owners took a beating in the stock market on the news they could lose Sprint as a customer. American Tower was down 1.9%, Crown Castle fell 3.2% and SBA Communications Corp. dropped as much as 4.5%.

The deal still must pass muster with the Justice Department, and attorneys general from multiple U.S. states are also opposing the deal on the state level. But the Republican members of the FCC joining up to support the deal make it more likely that it will eventually get approved.

FiOS Expansion is Still Dead: New Jersey’s Efforts to Win Over Verizon for Naught

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still, still, still, still, and still dead.

Despite the passage of favorable legislation deregulating the state’s largest telecom companies, Verizon has thumbed its nose at New Jersey’s efforts to convince the company to expand its fiber-to-the-home service.

“Verizon does not plan to expand its FiOS service footprint,” wrote Tanya Davis, a Verizon franchise service manager for FiOS in New Jersey and New York. “The company remains focused on continuing to meet its franchise obligations, and delivering competitive services, and enhanced consumer choices, where the services are available.”

More than a decade after passing the 2006 Cable TV Act in New Jersey, designed to convince telecom companies to compete more vigorously with each other, Verizon remains uninterested in further expanding its fiber network in New Jersey and beyond.

After successfully lobbying the state to adopt a statewide cable TV franchise policy, making life easier for Verizon by not requiring the company to negotiate a contract with each town serviced, Verizon suddenly stopped caring after announcing a pullback in further FiOS expansion in 2010. The change in heart appears to have started at the top. Then CEO Ivan Seidenberg, who approved FiOS, retired and was replaced by Lowell McAdam, who preferred Verizon invest mostly in its wireless networks.

Vergano

As a result, New Jersey has a telecom industry-friendly deregulatory policy in place with nothing to show for it.

“People want to see competition,” Wayne Mayor Christopher Vergano told the North Jersey Record, citing complaints his office has received about Altice USA’s Optimum service. “Over the years, they’ve seen their cable bills increase. We’re trying to give residents options.”

Wayne’s Township Council passed a resolution asking state lawmakers to review the 2006 Cable TV Act to find a way to coerce Verizon to do more fiber upgrades in the state. In 2006, then Gov. John Corzine got Verizon to commit to wiring 70 towns across New Jersey, and Wayne was not one of them.

Verizon agreed to expand its fiber network to all county seats, as well as areas with a population density in excess of 7,111 residents per square mile.

New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities (BPU) is still allowed to report on Verizon’s progress, but little else, thanks to deregulation. A BPU report stated deployment of FiOS slowed to a crawl between 2010-2013, when only three new towns were reached with fiber upgrades. What little interest Verizon still had in FiOS expansion ended after 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, after which Verizon ended expansion in urban areas of New Jersey as well.

“It’s solely Verizon’s discretion to add municipalities to its system-wide franchise,” a BPU spokesman told the newspaper.

Prior to deregulation, utility boards and regulators could compel companies to offer service instead of shrugging their shoulders and telling state lawmakers ‘it’s all up to Verizon.’

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