By Cassie Franklin and Kathleen Vaughn
The city of Everett and Snohomish County Public Utility District are proud of what we do to help businesses thrive in our region. Whether it’s working hand-in-hand with Economic Alliance Snohomish County, joining forces to lay fiber-optic lines for Frontier Communications headquarters, expediting permits for Boeing composite-manufactured jet airplanes, or providing a cost-effective and reliable source of electricity, we strive to cultivate a pro-business environment and to solve the challenges our businesses face.
We also understand that to be competitive in attracting businesses and making our community livable, cities must modernize our infrastructure, embrace innovations and create a level playing field for new technology. PUDs likewise help to make our community livable by maintaining the electric infrastructure that serves residents and businesses alike, ensuring that our power is delivered reliably and, most importantly, safely.
But there’s a difference between a level playing field and one that’s tilted in favor of businesses at the expense of consumers and the public.
Telecommunications companies seek unregulated access: In the 2017 Legislature, and again leading into the 2018 session, telecommunications companies are telling state lawmakers that if cities and PUDs don’t provide them unfettered access to rights-of-way and utility poles, we’ll be standing in the way of valuable new ”small cell” technology.
That’s unfortunate and untrue. The rights-of-way and infrastructure we manage belong to you — the public. All of you pay for that right-of-way and expect us to manage and regulate it responsibly. No other utilities get unregulated access to the public right-of-way or access to municipal infrastructure without providing reasonable compensation — nor should they.
The request from telecommunications companies to install small cells without rights-of-way regulation is actually a request for an unparalleled gift of authority. These are firms that make substantial profits, asking that they be allowed to install small cells at a greatly reduced rate in rights-of-way or on utility poles.
That’s not fair to taxpayers and ratepayers, and could amount to a gift of public funds to an industry sector — something our state Constitution forbids.
‘Small cells’ are not so small: Small cells are an exciting new technology. They are low-powered, portable base stations, grouped to create a network that would improve cellular service. In theory, small cells can also enable faster internet service and spur other innovative technologies. That’s great for any community.
But don’t let the term ”small cells” fool you. State law currently allows these to be up to the size of small refrigerators. Small cell facilities also require the installation of antennas and wireless boosters. And no two telecommunications firms develop small cells quite the same. Each carrier creates theirs with a unique design and different attachments.
With at least four major wireless companies wanting to build these small cell networks, that means thousands of them are going to need to be installed. That can have a dramatic effect on the aesthetics of a community. Our citizens justifiably speak out loudly if developments lead to unsightly impacts to historic districts and neighborhoods, no matter how spiffy the technology.
Keeping the focus on the community’s best interests: Without a doubt, we are excited to partner with telecommunications companies to deliver better, more innovative wireless technology to our citizens and our businesses.
But, for us, this issue is about balancing advanced technology with the interests of our communities and all our citizens.
The telecommunications industry tells policymakers that small cells will benefit everyone, but the fact is the technology will only benefit customers who can afford the service. These companies are under no obligation to ensure low-income neighborhoods or rural areas will have access to these new technologies. Nor do they have an obligation to preserve the aesthetics, the history, the safety, and the integrity of our neighborhoods. But we do.
If we allow telecommunications companies to limit our local authority now, we may never again be able to put the benefit of our citizens and ratepayers above their corporate interests. What happens when they want to install the next generation of technology? Or when a new competitor wants to install their own technology in Everett’s historic neighborhoods, its revitalized waterfront, or along downtown corridors refurbished with taxpayer funds? We won’t be able to stop them.
Legislature needs to protect local governments: The decision our Legislature makes about small-cell technology could have a domino effect in our communities. Absent a coherent system of regulating the right-of-way and utility poles, we could end up with cables and wires resembling large plates of spaghetti on our poles and wires and attachments hanging everywhere. This could create safety issues for crews trying to maintain reliability of the electric grid.
We hope it doesn’t come to that. The city’s and PUD’s oversight of small-cell installation is a necessary and important step of the process. We embrace evolving technology and want new markets for our businesses – but it can’t come at the expense of safety and the very people we were elected to serve.
Cassie Franklin is mayor of Everett. Kathleen Vaughn is president of the Snohomish County PUD’s board of commissioners.
What’s a ‘small cell’?
‘Small cells’ refer to antenna-like installations that can fill in the gaps and shadows of a cellular network and also add capacity where demand is high.