Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed: Big Wireless Providers’ Growth Limits Local Choice

Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, wrote an op-ed that the Orlando Sentinel published on March 5, 2020. Katie wrote about how lobbying from the big wireless companies at the state legislature restricts local communities from making their own decisions. She also touched on the importance of protecting local authority to allow communities to have their own right to make decisions.

Here is the full piece: 

Imagine moving into a new home. One of the reasons you chose this house was the view from your daughter’s bedroom of the park across the street, a nice change from the alleyway her room overlooked in your old apartment.

Then, days after unpacking the last pair of socks, a set of ugly, bulky boxes appear on the street light right in front of your daughter’s window, blocking the view almost entirely. You contact your council representative only to find out that it’s a new wireless “small” cell and despite being on city property, state law prevents them from doing anything. Their hands, you’re informed, are tied.

This story is playing out again and again in communities across Florida as companies like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile stumble over each other to build out next generation 5G wireless infrastructure. In their haste, wireless providers are slapping up poles and equipment often without concern for the impact on local communities, affecting aesthetics and straining city resources.

A municipality typically has the authority to prevent or at least address this kind of local nuisance. But in Florida, there’s little recourse for the communities and families harmed by indiscriminate 5G construction. As a result of lobbying from the big wireless companies, state law limits the ability of local governments to collaborate with wireless providers over the placement and appearance of small cell wireless facilities. It also shortens the permitting process for new wireless installations and caps or eliminates the fees that cities can charge companies like AT&T to use public property.

These industry-backed blanket regulations ignore the unique needs and values of different communities, limiting local control over neighborhood appearance, undermining digital equity efforts, and threatening public accountability.

Strict permitting timelines and fee restrictions further burden communities. Reducing the time available to review a permit application takes city staff and resources away from other duties. The slashed fees are unable to make up for this shortfall, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the slack. In effect, the Florida Legislature is forcing local governments to subsidize private companies merely because those companies hire effective lobbyists

 Improving wireless coverage is important, but it’s not an excuse for the legislature to give wireless providers carte blanche over your community. In many areas, 5G will only bring slightly faster speeds — T-Mobile tells most people to expect a 20 percent speed increase. This marginal improvement in Floridians’ lives will not outweigh the costs of state interference in local authority.

These state restrictions have precedent. The Florida Legislature has long limited communities’ ability to invest in wired broadband networks to create local Internet choice and connect unserved areas. For most cities, building their own network is a last resort, but that should be decided by their residents, not lobbyists at the state Capitol.

State overreach isn’t limited to communications. Florida law also prevents local governments from enacting community-supported legislation on minimum wage, environmental protection, and many other issues. Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research organization, reports that state interference in local affairs is increasing, driven in part by corporate special interests.

Alachua and Miami probably need different minimum wages and almost certainly have different concerns about wireless companies putting up new poles and equipment. Forcing them to be the same is good for AT&T executives but bad for everyone else.

No matter how powerful the monopoly lobbyists in Tallahassee are, communities should have some control over their property, and they should be able to demand accountability when someone interferes with it. We must protect the right to local decision-making.

The author is a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.