New Bill Threatens City Authority on Small Cell Infrastructure

The latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending American conflict between local and federal authority is taking shape — over wireless infrastructure and broadband deployment.

The newest threat to local control comes in the form of S. 3157, the “Streamlining The Rapid Evolution And Modernization of Leading-edge Infrastructure Necessary to Enhance (STREAMLINE) Small Cell Deployment Act.” This bill, introduced by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Brian Schatz (D-HI), promises big handouts to the wireless industry in the name of 5G deployment, while cutting city finances and rights-of-way management.

Wireless providers have argued for the past several years that local regulations and fees are a major obstacle to the deployment and exercise of 5G, the next generation of mobile wireless networks. STREAMLINE is a one-size-fits-all attempt to fix that problem. However, the heavy-handed nature of S. 3157 will only succeed in widening the national digital divide.

Local and state governments have traditionally negotiated with providers on the location, appearance, and size of wireless infrastructure, but this bill will severely limit the ability of cities to ensure the network and infrastructure suits the neighborhood around it. Cities around the country have reached agreements with providers on small cell deployments to uphold community priorities on important issues like digital inclusion, streetscape preservation, and road maintenance, but the STREAMLINE Act might incidentally put an end to that.

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S. 3157 will complicate all existing efforts by state and local governments to deploy small cell infrastructure. The proposed bill offers no protection for existing agreements, and in fact, it prevents future negotiation on innovative solutions that promote the mutual interests of providers and cities, such as digital inclusion funds or in-kind smart city technology payments.

Additionally, roughly half of all US states have passed legislation specifically addressing the deployment of small cell wireless structures, and the local governments in those states are busy implementing new ordinances to comply with those changes, as well as trying to negotiate with industry partners on deployment. This bill introduces an unnecessary, one-size-fits-all preemption of those local efforts at a time when states, cities, and providers are still trying to meet the requirements of existing law.

The STREAMLINE bill also imposes unfair and inappropriate timelines on local governments. The shot clocks proposed by S. 3157 are considerably shorter than those the federal government applied to itself in the bipartisan MOBILE NOW Act, which focused on wireless deployments on federal property. This is a clear double-standard being imposed on our nation’s cities. The reduced size-per-installation of small cell infrastructure does not directly translate to the reduced procedural burden on local governments. Cities must still review each site individually to ensure that it meets the jurisdiction’s requirements, and this new bill does not factor in all the resource challenges states and localities face when doing so.

Cities generally negotiate with providers to ensure fair compensation to taxpayers for private, profit-generating use of public property and S. 3157 breaks with this precedent by limiting the fees and rates local governments may collect. When cities are prohibited from controlling these rates, they are forced to subsidize private development, which comes at the expense of other critical local services, such as road maintenance and public safety.

STREAMLINE offers no guarantee to benefit communities or consumers. While it would make it cheaper to deploy small cell infrastructure in dense urban areas and big cities, those are places where deployment was already expected to be profitable. This bill removes one of the few bargaining chips available to communities to incentivize fairness in digital development. In focusing on the race to deploy 5G in only profitable markets, the Senate bill leaves rural communities and underserved urban neighborhoods on the wrong side of the digital divide.

NLC opposes S. 3157 and any House companion bill that may be introduced, as have many state municipal leagues. To add your voice in opposition to this harmful legislation, send a letter to your members of Congress.

About the Author: Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.