Handcuffing Cities to Help Telecom Giants
Carriers are pushing states and the FCC to constrain public rights. They say it’s for the mythical “5G.” We should be very skeptical.
By Susan Crawford
Mar 29 2017
It’s good to be one of the handful of companies controlling data transmission in America. It’s even better — from their perspective — to avoid oversight. And it’s best of all to be a carrier that gets government to actually stop existing oversight. The stagnant telecommunications industry in America has long pursued the second of those goals — avoiding oversight, or even long-range thinking that would favor the interests of all other businesses and all other Americans over those of AT&T, Verizon, Charter, and Comcast — by proclaiming that there is something really magnificent coming any day now from the industry that will make anything regulators are worrying about irrelevant.
And now that technique is at the heart of achieving Goal Three—wiping out oversight. Case in point: Right now, plans are being implemented at the FCC and at least 17 state legislatures to block cities from constraining uses of their rights-of-way by private cellular companies for 5G deployments that — you guessed it — are coming any day now. In other words, if a city wants to set up a fair and competitive system that favors competitors, citizens, and long-range goals instead of the interests of a single big company—well, that would be illegal. This nationwide effort is aimed at, effectively, privatizing public rights of way.
What’s the justification? Here’s the argument the cellular industry — itself mostly a duopoly of AT&T and Verizon, with Sprint and T-Mobile together accounting for about 30 percent of the market — is making at every level:
• We’re in a big hurry to lower the costs of deployment of advanced wireless systems, nicknamed 5G;
• If you could stop these cities from constraining uses of their public rights-of-way, we could save money when we do these installations;
• If we saved money by getting these pesky localities out of the way, we’d be freed up to invest more in high-speed internet access, including in rural areas;
• In fact, if we installed more 5G we’d solve all your internet access problems — who needs wires when we’ve got wireless?
Every step of this argument is misleading. And the whole widespread, multi-level, fast-moving effort is a distraction from the country’s real internet access problems. But it takes a couple of sentences to explain why, and so in the meantime credulous state legislators are falling all over themselves passing bills aimed at wiping out the future ability of a city to control its own data destiny.
There is an alternative that makes much more sense. Cities need to figure out — quickly — how to require neutral wireless infrastructure to be shared by all industry players, at a reasonable, neutral cost to any requestor. Cities need to ensure that they have ample dark fiber available at a reasonable cost for all of those wireless interconnection points and for all wired competitors. States and rural areas need to figure out how to provide collateral that would incentivize private investment in fiber systems in less-thickly-populated areas; we need substantial public backing in order to create that collateral, which may take the form of bonds.