Among other things, cities worry that letting companies install "small cells" unregulated could compromise the aesthetic of their neighborhoods. Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Mayors, state lawmakers, and carriers can’t agree on who gets to regulate the deployment of next-gen wireless technology—and it’s crucial for the future of smart cities.

In the race to make the U.S. a nation of smart cities, there’s no shortage of big ideas. Cities want to attach sensors to everything—streetlights, bridges, garbage trucks—and use the data they collect to predict things like potholes and traffic. They want their buildings to talk to residents via phones and wearables. They want the city grid to talk to cars. The list goes on.

But beneath all those ambitions lies a bigger challenge, one that’s at the heart of legal battles brewing between cities, states legislatures, and telecom companies in at least 17 states. For these projects to work out and scale up, cities are scrambling to build out the sort of high-speed, wireless infrastructure to support them. Among the most highly coveted is the much ballyhooed 5G network, which promises by 2020 to be anywhere between 10 and 100 times faster than what’s available now.

There’s no doubt that all parties want to see that set up in cities; officials want access to the latest wireless technology, and telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T want to be the ones who sell it to them. But everyone wants it to happen on their own terms.

In California, SB 649 awaits the signature of Governor Jerry Brown after passing through the state’s legislative chambers last month. Proposed by Democratic Senator Ben Hueso, the bill concerns the installation of so-called small cells, which would be the backbone of 5G. They’re essentially low-power transmitters that are smaller in size and range than traditional cell towers. They need to be densely packed together so that they operate as a relay team around obstacles, handing off signals from one station to another. That means thousands would have to be placed on streetlights, utility poles, and other city property. San Francisco alone would need about 10,000. And therein lies the debate.

Instead of leaving it up to the city to regulate where and how the cells can be deployed, SB 649 and other similar bills ultimately streamline the approval process by enacting statewide standards. Among other things, the California bill grants carriers access to public rights-of-way so long as they comply with building codes, structural requirements, and safety regulations. And it would cap the fee for using city property at $250 per device each year. It largely prohibits local officials from imposing additional fees or restrictions beyond what’s outlined in the bill, unless the changes are “mutually” agreed upon.

The bills differ from state to state, but their supporters essentially argue the same thing: that the massive deployment can be done more efficiently by preventing local officials from squeezing wireless carriers for more money and services and by bypassing arduously bureaucratic—not to mention outdated—procedures. “Right now, there isn't regulatory certainty for small cells, which are not like the 200-foot towers you see along the highways,” says Jamie Hastings, the senior vice president of external and state affairs for the wireless trade association CTIA. “And so you have a regulatory framework that addresses these very large installations (traditional towers) when in fact this new technology is the size of pizza boxes.”

The way proponents see it, the bills are crafted in the interest of building out a public benefit that’s increasingly in high demand. A report by Accenture Strategy suggests that not only does 5G support smart cities, it could also be a boon for jobs and infrastructure investment.

But critics aren’t buying it. In California, almost 300 mayors have banded together to voice their opposition, with mayors from five of the largest cities penning a formal letter to Brown urging him to veto the bill. Editorials in the local media call SB 649 a “telecom giveaway bill,” and  a “power grab” by companies looking to gain leverage at the negotiation table—if the bill even allows for one. One even deems it unconstitutional for usurping the rights of cities to ensure that the deployments are done with the community interest in mind.

There are concerns over the aesthetic of small cells, which critics argue are more like the size of refrigerators and can involve lots of wiring and noise. The last thing cities want is to have these installments take over historic towns or neighborhoods. Then there’s the matter of the $250 a year fee cap that cities argue isn’t enough to cover the cost of maintaining the public infrastructure. Hastings, at CTIA, maintains though that the framework would still allow city officials to be part of the conversation on these sorts of aspects.

The concerns go beyond the issue of small cells, with cities arguing that it could change the nature of regulating the industry altogether. "If telecom wants to be treated like a public utility, then we can certainly offer discounted access and eliminate a lot of red tape for their rapid deployment,” says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who is one of the mayors leading the opposition to the bill. “But in that case, they should bear the responsibility of a public utility—namely to serve every one.”

That the bills prohibit a city from requiring telecom companies to install their stations in lower-income communities worries Liccardo. The term “digital divide” gets thrown around a lot, and is often framed as an issue between the urban and rural, but it isn’t insignificant within cities as well. Mayors like Liccardo worry that, unregulated, the implementation of 5G would only widen that gap.

The thing is, both sides have valid arguments. Providers don’t exactly have a good track record about bridging the digital gap; among the more high-profile cases is New York City’s lawsuit over what it claims to be Verizon’s failure to roll out its high-speed Fios service citywide, particularly in poorer neighborhoods in South Bronx and Brooklyn.

And Liccardo acknowledges that companies are “undoubtedly right that in many cases, there are unnecessary road blocks.” In Palo Alto, California, for example, Verizon’s effort to install 200 small cells has dragged on for months as the city reviews proposed configurations and which shade of brown the devices should be painted. That’s why Liccardo says they’re open to negotiating with the companies on a leveled playing field—if only cities can get a seat at the table.

But all this talk about 5G is premature because the technology doesn’t exist yet, says Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in telecommunications. And when cities rush into deals to give certain providers access to public property so they can be one of the first to get 5G, it’s the residents who lose in the long run. “In the end, citizens will have very little choice over providers for their wireless services,” she tells CityLab.

If cities are truly concerned about giving all their residents high-speed internet, they need—before entering into any partnerships—to figure out how to make infrastructure available neutrally. “What a city should do is treat all of its street furniture and its public rights of way like neutral assets available to any qualified provider,” Crawford argues. “And not attempt to make its rights of way into revenue sources beyond the cost of making those rights away available.”

“It needs to be treated like a street grid on which any car can drive,” she adds. Otherwise, with or without the passage of those bills, they’re just paving the way for carriers to have a monopoly over the city’s physical and wireless infrastructure.

This article is part of a series highlighting the themes of CityLab Paris, a convening of urban leaders.

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