A measure aimed at making it easier for cellular companies to add hardware to telephone poles is heading to the house floor. Supporters say the move is necessary to meet growing demands on bandwidth, but opponents call it an industry handout.
Rep. Mike LaRosa’s (R-St. Cloud) proposal completed its short path to the House floor Monday.
“Small cell technology will benefit Floridians today, and into the future,” LaRosa says. “Small cells will help deliver increased data capacity faster connectivity speeds and overall better wireless experience.”
The new technology is part of fifth generation, or 5G, wireless service. A similar measure has already made it to the full Senate. But the idea, streamlining the process for placing new access points on municipally owned poles, is facing stiff opposition from local governments.
“What does it cost the industry to put up a pole?” Florida Association of Counties policy director Eric Poole says. “Or better yet, maybe ask the question how much are they saving by having the taxpayers subsidize the attachment of these poles in our public right of way?”
His primary criticism—and it’s echoed by many others—has to do with a state mandated cap on rates. The proposal limits the amount local governments can charge at $150 annually per pole. It’s not far off from rates in Arizona and Ohio, $50 and $200 respectively, but Ken Schmidt points out those are the only states with a similar policy.
“The fifty cities that we’ve reviewed for small cell rates have done significantly different,” he says.
Schmidt is president of Steel In The Air, a cell tower lease consulting firm, and he’s an expert on fair market values in the industry. He bases his fair market estimate on the going rates in fifty large cities.
“Those cities on average are charging $2,250 per year.”
Or fifteen times what LaRosa’s bill envisions.
It’s a biting irony for Bill Peebles. The local government lobbyist argues the GOP-backed measure is at odds with the principles Republican lawmakers have staked their reputations on.
“It’s good to be talking about this bill in front of the Florida House of Representatives,” Peebles says, “because nobody has been as emphatic as the Florida House has been this year that you’re not going to engage in corporate welfare, you’re opposed to subsidies, you’re not going to pick winners and losers, and this bill does all those things.”
Local officials have been steadfast in their opposition to a uniform cap, arguing instead that all rates should follow the market. But they may have overplayed their hand. While some Republican lawmakers do seem dubious about legislating rates, the party’s members voted as a block. And across the aisle, sympathy was scarce, too.
“City of Miami actually is the second worst city in connectivity—digital divide—in our state and in this country in many respects,” Rep. Nicholas Duran (D-Miami) says. “So for me, this is a question of how can we break down this digital divide.”
It’s far from certain LaRosa’s measure will substantively increase internet access. But with low, uniform costs its passage is likely a boon for wireless companies.