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Technology & Entrepreneurship

San Antonio Congressman Critical Of Cities Trying To 'Cash In' On 5G

John Huang | http://bit.ly/2SJQa7V

Cities are fighting state and federal governments over 5G,a technology many think is integral to the future of autonomous vehicles and the internet of things — and could prove to be important to the development of the tech industry.

Cities are suing the Federal Communications Commission and the state of Texas over rules and law changes that have reduced their power to control what goes into the public rights-of-way.

5G requires a denser network than previous generations of wireless technologies. It requires that transmitters called small-cell nodes are placed in exponentially larger numbers throughout a city. Telecommunications providers want to use city-owned light poles and on public property. 

A state law in Texas (SB 1004) reduced the fees that cities like Houston, San Antonio and Dallas had negotiated with providers by between 75% to 90%. 

Related | Texas Cities Go To Court Over Law They Say Loses Them Millions

Lawyers in the case against the FCC called it a corporate 'land grab.'

Another law (SB 1152) passed last year reduced fees further for cable companies who also provide phone service, combining the two fees into one. Oral arguments have been made in the FCC case and Texas cities have asked for an injunction against SB 1152. 

TPR Tech Reporter Paul Flahive spoke with Republican Congressman Will Hurd who supported the rule and law changes. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

PF: "Cities in Texas are suing the state over SB 1004 and SB 1152 over their ability to charge what they say is fair market value for telecommunications companies to use the city’s rights-of-way. What is your take on this combined lawsuit?"

WH: [Regarding SB 1152] "The state had said that cities can't charge a company twice for using the same rights-of-way. Back in the day, when you were delivering cable and telephone to a household, you oftentimes had to have two different cables." 

"Now a lot of that is being done through the same cable. And so the state is saying, ‘Why are you charging these companies twice to use the same thing?’ "

"And what does that mean? That means higher prices, ultimately, for consumers. And so this is the piece, that city and this was included and added on to a fight on that small-cell."

[Regarding SB 1004] "I was involved in helping to make sure that the telephone providers were focusing on San Antonio as a city where they can make it 5G dense. And when you have a 5G dense city, guess what happens? All the people that are going to be building companies that take advantage and use the 5G network, they're going to come here. And so that's why I want San Antonio to be a hub. And that's why I'm glad the city of San Antonio is actually intimately involved in having a great working relationship with the telecommunication firms to make sure we have this 5G dense city." 

"So, you know, regulation, overly burdensome regulation, getting in the way of deployment, that's why I'm concerned because not only do I want to make sure my fellow San Antonians have the best service and that we may even attract companies to come here because we have the best 5G service. We are in a geopolitical struggle with China when it comes to this topic. And it's whoever masters the companies that are using the 5G infrastructure. They're gonna be able to master things like artificial intelligence, which is going to give a serious leg up when it comes to, you know, who's making decisions on emerging technology in this country." 

PF: "We understand that this is something everybody wants in the community. But does it make sense to basically have this expansion, this for-profit expansion, on public property, and the public is not getting the amount it would have gotten under the fair open market." 

WH: "I would say that the cities are being reimbursed, right? And so this is not about not having a regulatory environment. It should be streamlined. And so the cities have to do reviews of these rights-of-way. So that takes an individual's time, and so cities should be rightfully compensated for that. But some cities are looking at this as an opportunity to cash in, and that's ultimately going to be an expense that is going to be pushed on along to the consumer." 

Related | 5G Will Not Solve The Digital Divide

PF: "I want to pivot just a little bit because I think a lot of cities — and I wrote about this recently — a lot of cities saw this as a golden opportunity to incentivize companies moving into some of these lower income areas saying we will charge you vastly lower rates if you promise to service this neighborhood as well as that neighborhood. You know, the haves and the have-nots. Do you worry about this becoming a missed opportunity to close some of that digital divide, a divide that we know in this country is becoming even more important with every single day."

WH: "So, the digital divide is real. But I don't know how this fee-charging structure is going to address that because it doesn't address making sure that young kids and some communities have devices that they can access the service. Just having infrastructure in place the antennas and bay stations is only one part. And so how do you incentivize the ability to gain access to that service? How do you make sure that people have devices to use 5G? That's a broader question. And I don't know. And again, I'm unfamiliar with how some of these cities think that they're going to be able to do that based there." 

PF: "You're saying that because there is a recurring cost that comes with every single one of these subscription services, that there's no answer for that. And infrastructure is just a piece just one leg of that digital divide stool or that digital inclusion stool, and I think a lot of advocates would agree with you on that. But I don't think they would agree that just not addressing the infrastructure piece is a good idea." 

WH: "For sure, but infrastructure generally follows where the users are. So you have to increase that demand side. To be frank, I don't know of what programs these cities have done when it comes to landlines or cell phones — to use those fees that they're collecting — To improve access. I'm not I'm not familiar with those programs, and I appreciate this conversation."

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.