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Commentary from Mayors: A towering problem: Illinois' 'pole tax'

Making calls, sending texts, streaming videos. We all want faster, better and more reliable wireless service these days.

But Illinois residents need to ask, at what cost?

When it comes to quality of life, Illinois taxpayers could soon bear the burden of the cellular industry’s 5G technology.

The Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act (SB 1451) gives big telecom companies carte blanche to place small cell antennas — the size of refrigerators, in some cases — on streetlights and utility poles in the public right of way in towns across the state.

The bill, which was passed by the General Assembly last fall and is currently on the governor’s desk, usurps local authority and the rights of municipalities for the economic gain of a thriving industry. Included in the lack of local authority is a cap on how much cities and villages could charge cell companies for the private, commercial use of public property and municipality-owned infrastructure. The legislation conveniently exempts the city of Chicago, whose legislators voted overwhelmingly for it, yet their decision negatively impacts the suburbs and the rest of the state.

Pre-empting local authority will just lead to less zoning authority and more problems. What’s next, the state requiring corporate advertising on the sidewalk outside your home? The DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, which represents more than 1 million residents, formally opposes the current legislation.

Subsidizing big telecom companies for the network build-out amounts to a corporate bailout — essentially a pole tax on residents. The towers in question are called small cells because their transmissions don’t carry very far. As a result, more are needed, creating a picket-fence-like effect of metal barnacles hanging above streets. Under this legislation, these eyesores can rise more than five stories above the tallest utility pole.

Moreover, the small cell epidemic isn’t confined to Illinois. From places as Midwestern as Cleveland and as progressive as Austin, Texas, cities across the U.S. are fighting to stop small cell legislation. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the state’s small cell legislation last year, saying it amounted to a corporate giveaway.

The bottom line is that wireless carriers don’t want to reinvest profits into capital expenses if they’re not pressured by competition or oversight to do so. Denying this bill would rightfully force big telecom companies to spend more on technology and work with municipalities on suitable solutions.

As DuPage County mayors, we urge Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly to consider changes in the bill that would:

  • enable individual municipalities to directly negotiate agreements in the best interest of their communities;

  • extend the cap to allow municipalities to charge competitively, which establishes a true market price and helps recoup the full expense of the oversight these facilities require;

  • establish size and design standards of the equipment;

  • limit the height of the antennas to 5 feet above the tallest utility pole; and

  • lengthen the approval process to give municipalities enough time to review and approve applications.

Our wireless infrastructure should be available at a neutral, affordable cost and enable competition to dictate the market — not a one-sided mandate by the wireless industry.

We all want access to more data at a faster pace, but lawmakers and the telecom giants should start by improving their connectivity with Illinois citizens.

This article originally ran on

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