Aesthetics and 5G

A recent news article by CBS4 in Denver shows a power supply unit for 5G that was recently installed in Aurora, CO. It’s roughly 5-foot tall and I venture to guess that most homeowners would not want this device at the front of their home.

The cellular companies have convinced the FCC that they need carte blanche authority to place small cell sites where they are needed, and the FCC gave them this authority in September 2018. The FCC order reversed the historic process where cell site placement was under local control. In asking for a national preemption of local rules the cellular carriers argued that they needed blanket authority to put cell sites anywhere in public rights-of-way if the US is to win the 5G war.

Communities all over the country have pushed back hard against the FCC ruling. Numerous cities and states have filed lawsuits against the FCC ruling. Courts have chipped away at that ruling and in August of this year, the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the FCC couldn’t preempt local ordinances concerning environmental and historic preservation reviews of cell site placement. A few cities have passed ordinances that would stop deployment of small cells due to concerns about health, property values, or aesthetics.

When the wireless companies first started deploying pole-mounted small cell sites some of the deployments were major eyesores. Deployments included placing large boxes and antennas and power supplies in the air connected by a maze of live wires. The wireless carriers quickly cleaned up their act in terms of hideous deployments, but in looking at the deployment in Aurora they still have a way to go. One interesting thing about this deployment is that the device sits on the ground. When this order was issued the press covered this as an order about placing devices on poles and they missed that the FCC gave the big carriers the right to put devices anywhere in the public right-of-way.

Historically, carriers would seek homeowner permission to install cabinet-sized boxes. More often than not they would find a place in a neighborhood where the cabinets and boxes were somewhat hidden from sight. Even though the process required voluntary participation by homeowners, it worked well. Sometimes carriers had to go to the city when they were unable to find a location for a needed cabinet, but in most cases, the carriers and the public worked out a solution.

It seems unfair that the first time that a homeowner finds they are getting a large cabinet in their yard is during the installation process. Just because carriers have the right to place anything related to small cells in the right-of-way doesn’t mean they should callously do so without communicating with the public. In this case, the wireless carrier probably had alternatives like placing the needed electronics in an underground vault instead of the large cabinet. That solution would cost more but would eliminate animosity with residents.

That raises an interesting regulatory question. In the long-run regulations are driven by what the public finds acceptable or unacceptable. The public in Aurora is not likely to be upset by this one small cell deployment, but imagine if there are 200, or 500 or 1,000 identical cabinets placed around the city. When carriers deploy solutions that the public doesn’t like, a city is going to fight back against the unpopular practices. New ordinances for small cells are likely to end up in court, and at some point, a judge will decide if the Aurora small cell device somehow crosses the line.

The FCC 5G order is interesting in that it swings to the far extreme of the regulatory pendulum by ruling that the wireless carriers have blanket authority to place any device anywhere they want. Over time, whether done by a future FCC, by the courts, or by Congress, rulings at the extreme fringe of the regulatory pendulum inevitably swing back towards the center. It’s almost inevitable over time that cities will get back more say about the aesthetics of small cell placement.

Big ISPs and Elections

Before you stop reading, this blog isn’t about party politics – the elections I am talking about are those where citizens vote on building a fiber optic network in their community. The incumbents don’t seem able to pass up the chance to turn an election their way when competition is put onto the ballot.

The latest example of this is the upcoming election on November 7 in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Voters in that community will be voting on whether to amend the city charter to allow the city to build and operate a fiber optic network in the city. Colorado law makes this elections mandatory, but I’ve seen other cities hold voluntary elections on the issue so that they are certain that the citizens are behind their efforts to build fiber. A positive vote in Ft. Collins would allow the city to take the next step to investigate if they want to build a fiber network in the city.

Ft. Collins is a community of 59,000 homes and Comcast and the other incumbent ISPs have spent over $200,000 so far in advertising against the ballot measure – a phenomenal amount of money spent on a local election and the most ever seen in Ft. Collins.

As is usual for fiber ballot initiatives, the incumbents are fighting against the passage of the measure by spreading lies and misinformation. For example, in Ft. Collins they are saying that voting for the measure would preclude the city from making other infrastructure upgrades for things like roads. In fact, this ballot measure just gives the city the legal authority to explore fiber and it’s likely that they would have another election to approve a bond measure if they decide to float a bond for fiber – a decision that would be some time in the future.

The misinformation being floated in Ft. Collins is tame compared to some of the other ways that incumbents have tried to stop fiber initiatives. In Lafayette Louisiana the combination of Cox and BellSouth (now AT&T) were extremely aggressive in trying to stop the fiber initiative (including filing several lawsuits to stop the effort). But prior to the election when fiber was going to be on the ballot they called every home in the community with a push poll that asked ludicrous questions about the fiber project. An alert citizen recorded the push poll and it can be found here. This takes 30 minutes to hear the whole thing, but if you are interested in the tactics the big ISPs use to fight it, this is well worth a listen. There are some amazing questions in this poll, and the gall of this push poll might have been what pushed the election to pre-fiber. In Louisiana the city needed to get more than a 65% yes on the fiber initiative, and due to a strong community effort the ballot measure passed easily.

I also remember a similar election in North St. Paul, Minnesota, a small community surrounded by the city of St. Paul. When the city put a fiber initiative on the ballot Comcast sent busloads of people to the city who went door-to-door to talk people out of voting for fiber. They deployed the usual misinformation campaign and scared a community that had a lot of elderly citizens into voting against the fiber initiative, which narrowly lost at the polls.

There was a similar lection recently in Longmont, Colorado. When the city first held a vote on the same ballot measure as Ft. Collins, the money from the big ISPs defeated the ballot measure. The ISPs won using a misinformation campaign that talked about how the fiber effort would raise taxes. But the citizens there really wanted fiber, and so they asked for a second vote and in the second election there was a massive grass-roots effort to inform the community about the facts. The fiber initiative on the second ballot won resoundingly and the city now has its fiber network.

There are several lessons to be learned from these ballot battles. First, the incumbents are willing to make a sizable investment to stop competition. But what they are spending, like the $200,000 in Ft. Collins, is a drop in the bucket compared to what they stand to lose. Second, they always attack fiber initiatives with misinformation, such as scaring people about higher taxes. They don’t fight by telling what a good job they are doing with broadband And finally, we’ve seen the ISP efforts be successful unless there is a strong grass-roots effort to battle against their lies. Cities are not allowed by law to take sides in ballot initiatives during an election cycle and must sit quietly on the sidelines. And so it’s up to citizens to take on the incumbents if they want fiber. The big ISPs will always outspend the pro-fiber side, but we’ve seen organized grass-roots efforts beat the big money almost every time.