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Cities Slam FCC on Broadband ProceedingsCities Slam FCC on Broadband Proceedings

City CIOs and CTOs think the FCC is putting future broadband and smart city investment at risk.

Mari Silbey

September 15, 2017

7 Min Read
Cities Slam FCC on Broadband Proceedings

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has made accelerating broadband deployment one of the top priorities of his administration. However, leaders in several of the nation's largest cities believe he's going about that mission in entirely the wrong way.

In a combined filing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , the CIOs and CTOs of a dozen cities -- including New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta, among others -- have laid out their significant concerns with two infrastructure proceedings aimed at removing regulatory barriers to broadband deployment. Contrary to the FCC's stated goals, the city administrators say they believe those proceedings will lead to action that puts future investment dollars at risk and even jeopardizes the development of advanced telecom networks.

There is context for the city leaders' arguments. Over the last year or more, there has been a battle underway as telecom carriers seek to gain more access to public rights-of-way in order to densify metropolitan fiber networks and add the necessary small cells to support the launch of 5G wireless services. The industry argues that the process for getting permits is currently too cumbersome and often more expensive than it should be. If it doesn't get better, they say, it won't be possible to move quickly enough to get Americans connected to next-generation broadband technologies. (See Utility Poles Pose Problems for 5G & More.)

Telcos have also had some notable success in gaining support for their position. Several states have passed laws, or are considering legislation, mandating how cities deal with carriers, including when they're required to grant access to city assets and even how much they're allowed to charge for utility pole leasing fees.

However, many local governments say those laws have significant negative consequences. Among them, cities contend that they lose out on the market-based value of their assets and the leverage to negotiate for digital inclusion initiatives when states dictate the terms of carrier agreements.

From the FCC filing: "These proceedings propose to allow incumbent providers of telecommunications services and facilities access to public and private property at below market rates (and seemingly, below full cost), and do not provide any incentives or guarantees that systems will be built out to serve underserved areas in urban, suburban, and rural America."

Figure 1: Carriers want to capitalize on broadband demand and the smart city movement. Carriers want to capitalize on broadband demand and the smart city movement.

The city of Austin (whose CIO Stephen Elkins is a signatory on the FCC filing) knows first-hand what that looks like. The local government was negotiating with service providers to expand public WiFi throughout the city earlier this year in exchange for lower utility pole leasing rates when the state of Texas passed a law capping pole fees at $250 per year. City officer Rondella Hawkins noted that the law removed any incentive for carriers to continue negotiating "since they're interested in their commercial service and certainly not public WiFi." She added that, "We went through this whole process strongly engaging with the carriers. And now these state-imposed fees are much, much, much less." (See Battle Begins for Small Cells, Smart Cities.)

Kirk Talbott, deputy CIO of the city of Atlanta, has also talked about the importance of negotiating power, pointing out that cities aren't just looking to cover their costs with leasing fees, but that they're also working to create more value for residents. "It's exploring [the question of] what is it that the telcos could provide in place of an annual permitting fee or usage fee that's of more value?" explains Talbott. He adds that the highest-value alternatives are "access to raw fiber, the dark fiber that we could utilize, and if not that, access to conduit so that we could lay our own fiber for a reasonable cost. And the other one that we've talked about is access to, in the case of a small cell deployment, access to cellular capacity."

Next page: Funding future innovation Funding future innovation
The CIOs and CTOs on the FCC filing argue further that without fair payment for access to public rights-of-way, cities won't have the necessary funds to invest in future IoT projects. They cite the $41 trillion that local governments around the world are expected to spend on IoT over the next 20 years -- per experts participating in the SmartAmerica Challenge launched through a White House initiative in late 2013 -- and note that this funding is at risk if cities can't count on revenue from the use of public land and other assets. Again from the filing: "As to funding, it is hard to imagine that the funding for widespread public IoT investments can come from increased taxes, bonding backed by general funds, or existing municipal budgets. Today, local governments are improving infrastructure and deploying the IoT by leveraging existing assets such as, publicly owned light standards, providing access to private companies in return for cash or in-kind rents, such as the provision of capacity, sensors, and services to local governments for little or no charge. The model is a classic public-private partnership that allows for far more rapid deployment of IoT projects than would otherwise occur." Figure 2: Washington DC government officials showed off smart city plans during the Global City Teams Challenge Expo in the nation's capital. Washington DC government officials showed off smart city plans during the Global City Teams Challenge Expo in the nation's capital. The signatories lay out yet another point of interest. They say that the FCC proceedings assume that local governments will always be dealing with the current incumbents in the telecom market. However, both the explosion in new unlicensed wireless technologies and the industry-changing nature of software-defined networking means that's not necessarily true. "By ensuring that localities have the ability to enter into partnerships and to control their own assets," say the signing CIOs and CTOs, "the FCC can encourage innovation in product design and deployment that will result in networks that do more than simply stream video to the home." For more broadband market coverage and insights, check out our dedicated Gigabit/Broadband content channel here on Light Reading. From the telecom industry point of view, something has to change in telcos' relationships with local municipalities because if the process for gaining access to public land and assets doesn't improve, they won't be able to deploy the necessary infrastructure for broadband and IoT connectivity. This argument covers much of what industry representatives are debating as part of their discussions within the FCC's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC). The BDAC is charged with making recommendations to the Commission on accelerating broadband deployment even as the agency is, in parallel, working through the infrastructure proceedings described above on the same issue. City leaders, however, counter that they don't have enough representation on the BDAC and that their arguments are in danger of being overlooked in FCC debate. When the BDAC was initially formed, only one local government official was appointed to the committee out of a total of 29 members. Since then, the FCC has added two more. (See Cities Clamor for More Clout at FCC .) The FCC has also since clarified that it has no intention of creating new regulatory mandates to compel cities to accept any particular set of conditions. Instead, the agency hopes to offer financial incentives in the future to cities that adopt whatever broadband deployment models it eventually codifies. (See On Broadband, FCC Talks Carrots, Not Sticks.) The approach may not placate local governments. It could mean that municipalities that don't follow FCC recommendations miss out on federal funding opportunities in the future. Such a strategy also wouldn't change state legislation already passed, or in the works, that leave cities with limited options to control their own infrastructure destinies. Certainly the latest filing with the FCC suggests that cities are willing to fight for a lot more than what the agency and the telecom industry want to give. It could be a long road ahead. — Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Mari Silbey

Senior Editor, Cable/Video

Mari Silbey is a senior editor covering broadband infrastructure, video delivery, smart cities and all things cable. Previously, she worked independently for nearly a decade, contributing to trade publications, authoring custom research reports and consulting for a variety of corporate and association clients. Among her storied (and sometimes dubious) achievements, Mari launched the corporate blog for Motorola's Home division way back in 2007, ran a content development program for Limelight Networks and did her best to entertain the video nerd masses as a long-time columnist for the media blog Zatz Not Funny. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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