Local governments are blasting a bill that would let telecommunications giants attach suitcase-sized boxes to telephone poles on public property at a modest cost and with little oversight as part of the new superfast 5G wireless technology.
According to the bill that sailed through the Legislature last week, governments would be prohibited from charging telecommunications companies — such as AT&T, Verizon and Sprint — more than $150 per pole annually to use the public right of way for their equipment.
With a $150 cap, Florida counties stand to lose as much as $145 million — including $17 million in Central Florida — annually if the bill becomes law, according to estimates from the Florida Association of Counties, which strongly opposes the bill.
Large retirement communities, such as The Villages northwest of Orlando, would be exempt from the restrictions and allowed to negotiate potentially much higher fees with telecommunications companies.
“It really takes away our ability to regulate cell-phone facilities on our right of way,” Seminole County Commission Chairman John Horan said. “These are in the right of way. They belong to the public, and these are private cell-phone companies using the right of way.”
Currently, counties and municipalities negotiate fees with utility and telecommunications companies to set up equipment on power poles, street lights and traffic cross arms in the right of way. Such fees can range up to $2,000 per pole annually.
The bill’s main sponsors, state Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-Kissimmee, and state Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, did not return calls for comment.
State Sen. Dennis Baxley, a Republican whose district includes The Villages, defended the bill, saying it would help large telecommunications companies implement the new 5G — or fifth generation — technology faster across the state.
“It’s a balancing act,” Baxley said. “How do you help deliver the access of new technology but try to be respectful of local governments? There are so many jurisdictions that it can be a contracting nightmare for these companies to negotiate with each municipality.”
Baxley added an amendment to the bill that excludes retirement communities with more than 5,000 residents, such as The Villages, a mammoth 55-and-older community with about 124,000 residents.
“These are planned communities where they are building a whole lifestyle,” Baxley said in explaining the exemption. “I think they should have a little more control over what happens within their communities.”
The bill also exempts the state Department of Transportation and municipalities within coastal barrier islands, such as Cedar Key and Sanibel.
The 5G wireless technology eventually will replace the current 4G LTE found in most smartphones today. It will provide consumers with faster service and the ability, for example, to download a high-definition movie in less than a second. The technology also will be used to operate self-driving cars, drones and other wireless devices.
But the 5G technology is still years away, according to industry analysts, because telecommunications companies still have to upgrade their infrastructures to make the transition. That includes putting up the boxes — which can range in size from a pizza box to a small refrigerator and operate like small cell towers — on tens of thousands of poles across the state.
Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, said cities and counties aren’t opposed to advancing the new technology.
However, the bill gives a lucrative break to telecommunications companies that rake in billions of dollars of revenue every year at the expense of local taxpayers, she said. Verizon’s total operating revenue last year, for example, was nearly $30 billion.
“It’s corporate welfare,” Mosteller said. “They are giving breaks to billion-dollar companies instead of allowing counties and cities to be able to charge a market competitive rate” for using the public right of way.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but he criticized the bill as “unfair to our community and unnecessary” in a March 10 letter to the editor in the Sentinel. Orlando’s current regulations help advance infrastructure improvements but also protect the city’s parks and neighborhoods, he said.
The bill “would allow placement of telecommunications equipment in our neighborhoods, along our roads — maybe right in front of your home,” Dyer wrote. “This legislation would grant these private corporations unrestricted access to our public rights of way, shortcut regulatory procedures and require taxpayers to subsidize for-profit businesses.”
Dyer spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser said the mayor is pleased with late compromises to allow local governments to maintain some control on the design and location of the equipment in their right of way.
The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk. A spokeswoman from the governor’s office said Tuesday that Scott will review the bill once he receives it.
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