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Will Florida pre-empt local governments to complete next-gen wireless connectivity?

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From smartphones to smart cities. The next generation of wireless connectivity will require enough signal coverage to support the exploding demand for consumer data use, and innovative new technologies such as driverless cars.

But it will take a massive influx of wireless communications infrastructure to achieve, according to Beth Cooley, state legislative affairs director for CTIA, a nonprofit membership association of wireless communications companies.

“Look at your iPhone or cellphone,” Cooley told a Florida House legislative panel in February. “In the upper right-hand corner, you’ll see 4GLTE (Fourth Generation Long-Term Evolution). That’s today’s network. The rollout of 4GLTE was completed in 2010.”

Cooley said wireless providers will need to “densify” existing networks to support 5GLTE. The proposed solution is to place small-cell towers on utility polls on public rights of way to complement coverage from large, traditional communications towers, especially in high-traffic network areas.

A pair of bills advancing through the state Legislature are paving the way for the hockey puck-to-pizza box-sized small cells – but not without opposition.

“I think every city and county in the state is against this,” said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Boca Raton.

The main objections raised Monday in a Senate Government Oversight Committee were aesthetic — seasoned with a dose of worry about the loss of a potential revenue source.

Florida law authorizes the state Department of Transportation and local governments to prescribe and enforce reasonable regulations for placing and maintaining structures within public rights of way.

“In return, we get rent,” said Eric Poole, deputy director of policy for the Florida Association of Counties.

Senate Bill 596, approved 5-1 by the Oversight Committee, would shift local control of right of way access for small-cell technology to the state. It also would create a 60-day time limit for permit applications, and cap pole attachment fees at $15 per year.

According to a staff analysis, Jacksonville’s municipal utility service charges $1,236 per year for each small-cell site. The DOT receives $1.8 million annually for one of its small cell leases.

Cooley said such costs — along with the cost of new poles if access to existing utility poles are denied — will be passed on to consumers. Cooley told a House Energy and Utilities Subcommittee last month that small cells are needed on every seventh pole in high-congestion urban areas.

“The spectrum it’s going to operate on doesn’t travel as far as a large macro-tower,” she said.

A representative from the Florida League of Cities called the legislation “outrageous,” adding that the $15 annual fee limit is inadequate and that the small cells present a “nightmare for public safety.”

The Senate committee’s chairman, Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican, said the rights of way belong to everyone.

“Having served in local government and statewide government, there’s always a tension on how to balance having thousands of entities to deal with in order to achieve a goal, and at the same time honor each community and its needs,” Baxley said.

“We need to move on a path of expanding technology,” he added.

Wireless infrastructure providers have begun deploying small cells in select jurisdictions, and have reported being hampered by some local governments, including the cities of Tallahassee and Fort Lauderdale and Pinellas County, either through regulation or temporary bans.

Fort Lauderdale recently extended a small-cell moratorium from six-months to more than 30 months.

Pre-empting local control and capping pole attachment fees would expedite 5G infrastructure deployment necessary for an expected 2020 rollout. All existing pole-attachment agreements would have to comply with the new legislation by Jan. 1, 2018.

The bill’s critics are crying out for home-rule, even even while acknowledging the demand for expanded wireless connectivity.

“When we come up here to Tallahassee, I think we just forget where we come from,” said Rader, the lone dissenting vote. “On the other hand, every one of my constituents wants this type of service.”

Under the legislation, local governments would be allowed to charge permitting fees as currently outlined in Florida law. If charged, the local communications services tax would have to be reduced by 0.12 percent. Forgoing permitting fees would allow for an increase of 0.12 percent in the local communications tax.

“Everybody is data-hungry,” Cooley told lawmakers. “That’s only going to increase.”

The Senate bill will next be referred to the Rules Committee. A companion House bill has advanced to the Commerce Committee after sailing through its previous stop, 12-2.

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