Moderated by Rick Badie
It’s a mouthful, but if passed, the Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act would streamline the permitting process for the installation of cellphone towers. The legislation, which supporters say would boost the growth of wireless technology, is sailing through the General Assembly. Today’s guest writers — one in favor of the legislation, the other against — offer their views on House Bill 176.
By Joel Aaron Foster
Whether it’s a concert, rally, Pope’s election, sporting event or an attempt to cope with gridlocked traffic during Atlanta’s recent snow jam, one conspicuous aspect of virtually every modern-day event has changed dramatically over the last 10 years: The presence of mobile devices.
As Georgia consumers take their data mobile, the infrastructure to keep up is in high demand. Cell towers are popping up around the state. The potential is there to allow consumers to experience lower prices due to competition between carriers and more reliable access to strong cell tower signals. Progress, however, has run into snafus: unnecessary government intrusion that slows down construction, and government regulation that drives up the costs of building infrastructure and mobile services.
This is on the verge of changing. House Bill 176, the Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act, tackles obstacles that stand in the way of inexpensive consumer access to mobile technology. The bill passed swiftly through the House Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee on Jan. 23 and is on the fast-track for passage in 2014 with a House vote scheduled soon.
It does three things: limits fees and compliance costs imposed by local governments on builders of wireless technology infrastructure; limits bureaucratic red tape that lengthens the application review time for a cell tower project, and streamlines the review process.
The fee limitations include limits to costly rental or lease fees companies often incur when placing wireless facilities on public property. Local governments often charge higher-than-market rates when leasing public land. Mobile service providers are forced to eat the cost or pass it to consumers. This drives up the cost of cell service for everyone.
Local governments also tend to cobble along slowly through regulatory hurdles that draw out the clock, often up to two years on a tower project that usually takes no more than six to eight weeks to build.
HB 176 adds a new “State Shot Clock” for new sites that matches the existing “Federal Shot Clock” and speeds up the process. The state clock requires a final decision on new tower applications within 150 days, unless the application is incomplete. An application would be deemed complete within 30 days of its submission unless the local authority advises the applicant otherwise.
Safeguards remain for evaluation of sites, clean-up of existing sites, FAA air space safety protocols and proper placement of cell towers. The process to meet Georgia’s 21st century telecommunications needs will be vastly expanded by the passage of free-market legislation like the Mobile BILD Act.
(Editor’s note: The Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, whose members initially had concerns about the bill, reached a compromise with wireless providers regarding the current legislation. The Senate could take up the bill as early as next week.)
Joel Aaron Foster is communications coordinator for Americans for Prosperity Georgia.
Flaws remain in bill
By Karla Drenner
House Bill 176,the Mobile Broadband Infrastructure Leads to Development (BILD) Act, has rapidly made its way through the Georgia House. Its swift passage concerns me, and I stand in opposition to it for three reasons.
This bill is blatantly misleading. It allows private entities to have access to public lands to profit without regard to the local communities. And it strips governments of local control.
The Mobile BILD Act claims to allow for a more streamlined permitting process for new cellphone towers and the expansion of existing ones. It calls for shorter application review times, less regulation and limitations fees.
Supporters of HB 176 suggest more bandwidth and infrastructure is needed to attract business and improve public safety. This argument is profoundly misleading.
The cellphone industry wants people to believe more cell towers are important for public safety. However, public safety officials do not rely on phone service for critical communications. In DeKalb County, it is provided by a radio tower atop Stone Mountain — not a proprietary cellular service.
Moreover, nothing in the current version of HB 176 prevents for-profit entities from constructing cell towers on public land, including on or near school properties or land zoned residential. In 2010, I included a non-binding referendum on the primary ballot asking if schools should allow cell towers on school property. The overwhelming response was “no.”
Some of my colleagues with districts in DeKalb have also voiced concern about the possibility of towers being built on school grounds. Communities should be protected from such risks. Erecting new cellphone towers or expanding current ones on or near schools or in neighborhoods are legitimate concerns.
Lastly, HB 176 would strip local governments of their decision-making power. Cities are already obliged to adhere to tight FCC “shot clock” regulations. Currently, cities must make a formal decision in writing to approve or deny an application for a new tower within 150 days. Local governments have 30 days to notify an applicant for a new tower if more information is needed.
This bill would further tighten the time constraints. If a county does not respond within a set time, the cellphone tower is automatically approved. Local government control would be superseded; the for-profit entity would have its way.
It is worth noting that communications companies tend to invest in communities where there is significant local regulation; the best coverage is in these areas. Conversely, the poorest coverage areas have the least amounts of regulation. Minimal regulation does nothing to foster capital investment and improve service.
The Mobile BILD Act was first introduced last year, but was defeated because of its blatant push against local authority. It remains flawed.
State Rep. Karla Drenner, a Democrat, represents District 85.