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Politics

Wireless Technology Sparks Legislative Debate

March 20, 2017 - 6:45pm

A debate about how to move forward with 5G wireless, the next generation of high-speed technology, is making big waves in the Legislature.

Proponents say the technology is needed to meet consumer demand and will spur economic growth.

"At the end of the day, I want to make sure Florida is ahead of the technology curve," said Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud.

But local governments are pushing back against legislation in the House and Senate that would set statewide rules for wireless carriers on the installation of "small wireless facilities" and take away control from cities and counties on the public placement of devices needed to handle the new technology.

"This language precludes us from enacting any regulations within our rights-of-way for any small cell facilities," said Eric Poole, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Counties.

City and county officials say they are primarily concerned that the proposal keeps them from negotiating rates and having a say in the aesthetics of their communities.

Called "small cells," the equipment can be placed on existing utility poles and any other freestanding structures within public rights-of-way, but may also require the installation of new poles or towers.

Also, 5G wireless communications, using high-frequency waves to carry significant amounts of data on a spectrum that doesn't have a wide range, requires the small cells to be located close together. The idea is to do away with pockets of "dead" areas out of reach of existing large cell towers.

Megan Sirjane-Samples, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities, said the proposed legislation would give technology companies "unfettered access" to public rights-of-way and would be a "nightmare" for public safety.

"This equipment could interfere with pedestrians, create additional debris in a hurricane and tie up space that should be for police and fire radio antennas," Sirjane-Samples said.

The preemption proposal could also cut revenue to state and local governments while aiding companies such as Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T that back the legislation.

Rather than allowing governments to negotiate individually, which in some cases could be worth hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars a year in revenue, the proposals would set a cap of $15 on the annual fee for each "small cell" placement.

Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie expressed concern that the proposals would preempt existing deals, noting his city entered an agreement in 2015 with Verizon regarding the location of small cells in rights-of-way and on public structures.

"They proposed a fee of $2,000 per year, per location and they would do a supplemental agreement each time they did a location," Beedie said.

A House staff analysis said the state Department of Transportation receives $1.8 million a year from space leased on poles it owns. A Senate analysis said JEA, the municipal utility in Jacksonville, charges $1,236 a year for each small cell site.

At the same time, House staff predicted that the more-favorable terms for wireless providers could bring Florida a "swifter influx of capital investment in small wireless facilities."

The proposal would give local governments some authority to approve or deny applications on the placement of devices, based on certain zoning codes, including historic-preservation regulations. Yet if no decision is made within 60 days of the paperwork being filed, the application would be considered approved.
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Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, said in supporting the proposal that the state needs to clear barriers for the technology he called "transformative."

"In order to strengthen and expand a growing network, I think we need to make sure that 5G technology is deployed in unison across our state and not leave it up to essentially local governments that may delay the progress of something that is so innovative and something that would meet growing consumer demands," Avila said.

The House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee last week approved the House bill (HB 687), sponsored by La Rosa, in a 12-2 vote. It would need to clear the House Commerce Committee before it could go to the House floor.

A similar measure in the Senate (SB 596) cleared the Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities Committee in a 7-1 vote on March 7 and must get through two more committees before reaching the floor.


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