Editorial: NE Bill to promote rural wireless is unbalanced, would create major problems for cities

Editorial: NE Bill to promote rural wireless is unbalanced, would create major problems for cities

March 14, 2018

 

A proposal before the Nebraska Legislature, Legislative Bill 389, has a worthy goal — encouraging wireless technology in rural communities.

 

Unfortunately, LB 389 as currently written would create major problems for urban areas. It’s unbalanced legislation that would erode municipalities’ legitimate authority.

 

Heated debate is expected on this highly technical bill. If lawmakers can’t correct the legislation’s multiple flaws through amendments, LB 389 should be voted down.

 

The bill’s commendable aim is to help rural communities gain access to next-generation 5-G wireless technology via equipment known as “small cells.” That technology — consisting of antennas, radio equipment and support devices — attaches to existing structures such as utility poles or street lights. Small cells are a new alternative to traditional cell towers.

 

The bill’s sponsor is State Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson, chairman of the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee, which approved LB 389 on a 5-3 vote (with three urban senators voting no). State Sen. John Lowe of Kearney designated it as his priority bill.

 

Representatives for the city governments of Omaha, Lincoln and Papillion testified against the bill, as did the Nebraska League of Municipalities, the Nebraska Association of Counties and industry associations for electrical utilities, telecommunications providers and cable providers.

 

Karla Rupiper, Papillion’s city attorney, testified against the bill on behalf of her city and the Nebraska League of Municipalities. The legislation as originally proposed, she said, “in our view is a very broad brush and a very one-size-fits-all approach that we believe is very one-sided to the benefit of the wireless cell industry. It would significantly interfere with our local zoning regulations and ordinances and the controls that are in place for the logical and safe regulation of tower siting and colocation of tower equipment.”

 

LB 389, she said, “would also significantly interfere with our existing right-of-way agreements with other utility carriers for the use of the city rights-of-way. We have a number of those agreements in place in which we receive either an occupation tax or franchise agreement.”

 

Alan Thelen, with the Omaha City Attorney’s Office, agreed. “We feel that it gives special preferred status to builders of towers and infrastructure as opposed to telecommunications companies themselves,” he told lawmakers. “We believe that that goes beyond federal law. It appears to give a blank check to private companies to build an unlimited number of poles and towers in the right-of-way. We’re afraid that we could see a forest of poles and towers in our towns and cities. It takes away a responsible management of rights-of-way.”

 

In addition, testifiers said, LB 389 would create regulatory confusion, since the Federal Communications Commission is considering issuing mandates for small-cell technology.

 

Illustrating the major concerns from this bill, 11 amendments are pending for when the bill goes before the full Legislature. Lawmakers should try to strike a proper balance that serves both rural and urban needs. If they can’t, they need to kill the bill and start fresh next session with a more workable

approach.

 

This article originally ran on omaha.com.

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