Friday, November 24, 2017

Column: Yes, businesses want 5G technology, but not this way


Florida's citizens and businesses need an improved wireless infrastructure to drive our economy forward. A key step to building that infrastructure is the placement of "small cell" technology — poles, antennas and refrigerator-sized equipment to supplement large cellular towers. These smaller pieces of equipment "boost" data capacity and allow for faster Internet speeds.

Some in the Florida Legislature are seeking to expedite small cell placement in the publicly owned right-of-way by eliminating local control over aesthetics, permitting and costs. We should oppose this legislative action, even while supporting the technological advancement.

The Wireless Communication Infrastructure bill (HB 687/SB 596) throws out the rulebook for permitting. Look at it this way: The superhighways of the Internet move the goods and services of today, stimulating the economy just as the interstate road system boosted American businesses in the 1950s.

Interstates were strategically placed to minimally disrupt communities along the route, while still delivering benefit to those locales. Similarly, large cell towers are thoroughly vetted to ensure that they meet the need without ruining the area they are meant to serve.

This bill turns all that on its head. Following the blueprint of the small cell bill, those interstate highways would have been built willy-nilly, creating a snarled system without regard for whom they served, whom they displaced or the damage they did to the community.

This bill puts the authority for placing small cell equipment in the hands of the big telecoms, and it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which the benefit to the company would supersede the property rights of an individual homeowner.

Remember that the right-of-way is generally the space between the sidewalk and the street in front of your home. Do you want a refrigerator-sized box or a 60-foot wooden pole at the base of your driveway? What if you live in a neighborhood that buries the lines for aesthetics or safety? Talk about disrupting communities along the route.

This bill would also disrupt a thriving free market system that is advancing our wireless infrastructure even as you read this column. This small cell technology can be attached to existing buildings, and both public and private entities have negotiated fair market rates for such placement. In Fort Walton Beach, the going rate is $2,000 a year; in Jacksonville it's about $1,200.

But this bill sets the fee for placement in the public right of way at a paltry $15 annually. Who can compete with that? And why should the private sector have to? Are legislators so eager to offer this extraordinary corporate handout to the telecoms that they will destroy the existing free market system?

But there's an even more disturbing part of this proposed legislation. If passed as written, the Legislature would have the distinction of actually regulating a whole industry out of business. How's that for Republican values? In today's free market, firms work with local governments on mapping and planning to choose the best locations and aesthetics and then sell that research to the telecoms. Others reserve space on top of buildings and then rent it to the telecom industry for their equipment. Those firms would literally be regulated out of business.

Yes, we want 5G, but we also believe in less business regulation, not more. Yes, we want to expand access to high-speed wireless, but not at the cost of the existing free market. Yes, we want improved infrastructure, but we shouldn't set the dangerous precedent of legislating companies out of business.

Beth Rawlins is president of Florida Business Watch, a trade association for companies that do business with local government.


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