The FCC Wants Our Public Property. We’re Saying No.

By Samir Saini, New York City Chief Information Officer and Commissioner, Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications

The Federal Communications Commission is taking a vote tomorrow to give billion-dollar telecom companies control of the city’s most crucial piece of public infrastructure: the light pole. New York City stands with cities across the country united in opposing this Order that would have extremely damaging consequences for every American municipality.

Net Neutrality. Internet Privacy. Sound familiar? Probably. In the eighteen months since Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai was appointed, urgent and noisy battles erupted around these topics, conscripting millions of Americans into the fight against the FCC’s vaporization of reasonable rules designed to protect them.

Lurking in the shadows of these well-publicized battles lies yet another rule on the brink of evisceration by the FCC — one that has enormous potential to affect the lives of millions of Americans.

It’s the rule of local control.

This is the common-sense policy that for decades has empowered American municipalities — from our largest cities to the smallest towns — to ensure the spread of wireless service throughout our communities. In New York City, we use this local authority to steadily offer access to thousands of light poles to companies that install technology for carriers such as AT&T and Verizon. This can help improve wireless internet service, and sets the stage for superfast 5G deployment — and retains poles for our own public safety, traffic control, and other essential systems.

All across the country, local authority works. It empowers cities to protect public property, dramatically expand wireless coverage, guarantee safety and aesthetic protections for their streets, and bring in pole rental revenue that helps defray costs for first responders, schools, and more. Meanwhile, telecommunications companies densify their network, expand their footprint, and grow their revenue. It’s a win-win.

But on Wednesday, the FCC may try to dismantle this balanced system, handing taxpayer-owned assets over to multi-billion dollar telecommunications companies, and encouraging them to run wild on our public rights of way.

If that sounds like a bad idea, it is. There are several reasons this move would be deeply damaging for towns and cities, big and small:

Federal control of local streets isn’t going to bring more or better wireless service to Americans.

The industry and the FCC have argued that allowing wireless companies to put up equipment anywhere they please will encourage broadband deployment to underserved areas. Looking at recent history, there is no reason to believe that they actually will.

Driven by their profit motive, big wireless companies are going to go where the money is — to the rich commercial districts and dense residential areas in urban cores, upgrading the network already in place there and charging the highest rates they can get. They will not be racing to serve traditionally underserved areas at affordable rates — be they rural or urban — where the prospect of profit doesn’t look as good. This could result in the kind of “digital redlining” AT&T stands accused of doing in cities like Cleveland and Detroit.

We see this play out in NYC, where poles are priced as low as $12 per month in underserved areas yet there are very few providers looking to install in those communities. Our colleagues in rural areas tell us they haven’t been able to attract companies even when offering poles at NO cost.

Lack of local control over public streets could endanger everyone’s safety.

Without local control, multiple companies could pile many different installations on a single light pole. Imagine a mass of new equipment on a single structure, ruining streetscapes and potentially interfering with first responder, electric utility and other critical equipment. Then imagine what might happen during a hurricane or an act of terrorism when public safety systems or traffic control or cell service is damaged. Do we really want that kind of confusion and delay when confronting the worst?

Federal control will stifle smart city innovation.

LinkNYC is New York City’s free superfast wi-fi network — the largest, fastest municipal network in the world. It’s a pioneering effort that other cities across the globe are modeling their own projects after — exactly the kind of innovation Chairman Pai claims is good for the country. It never would have happened without the local authority to innovate, experiment, and deploy on our public rights of way.

The FCC is threatening to take control without the necessary legal authority.

The move the FCC is contemplating on Wednesday is, bluntly, an illegal overstep of their authority. Congress has clearly assured cities control of local rights-of-way for wireless equipment. The courts have upheld this, and if the FCC proceeds otherwise, all Americans stand to gain are lawsuits and confusion, not enhanced wireless service.

Make no mistake: the FCC is threatening the public’s right to control public property, and dozens of cities, states, and towns from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska to Anchorage, Alaska are ready to defend that right on behalf of our residents and taxpayers.

Our message is clear. Mr. Chairman: it’s time to start over, working in honest collaboration with cities to determine a path forward that puts people first. We see your Commission’s strategy as part and parcel of a larger, systemic attack towards municipalities aimed at “getting local government out of the way.” Local governments already aggressively work with industry to creatively, quickly, and safely develop and enhance communications infrastructure in our communities. And Americans should have the same rights to their public property that they do to their private property: the right to a fair compensation for its use, and control over how it’s used, how it looks, and how safe it is.

Locals know their own streets best. Let us lead the way.