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Small-cell antenna
Deploying 5G cellular service will require the installation of many more small-cell antennas in neighborhoods. (Verizon Photo)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes say they intend to appeal an order from the Federal Communications Commission that mandates how much municipalities can charge for letting telecom carriers mount 5G cellular equipment on city-owned infrastructure.

The FCC’s commissioners voted to issue the order on Sept. 26, but it hasn’t gone into effect yet. When it does, it could slash Seattle’s utility-pole fees to a fraction of what they are now. The order also sets up “shot clocks” for city governments to rule on applications for 5G equipment installations.

The move is expected to reduce the costs of cellular service companies such as Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile by as much as $2 billion a year. But in a statement issued today, Durkan and Holmes characterized the order as a power grab.

“Seattle strongly opposes this overreach by the Trump administration,” they said. “Instead of expediting the deployment of high-speed internet or addressing digital inequity, the FCC’s actions impede local authority and will require cities to subsidize the wireless industry’s deployment for private gain, giving away public property without asking for anything in return.”

 Durkan and Holmes said they’re checking with city departments, including the Seattle Department of Transportation, Parks and Recreation, Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities, to gauge the full extent of the order’s impacts. Those impacts include increased staffing for compliance with the order.

City officials are also talking with telecom carriers about the potential impact on existing contracts, as well as pending applications for the deployment of wireless infrastructure. “We are particularly concerned about how the order will compromise the safety, security, and reliability of critical electrical infrastructure, City Light’s utility poles,” Durkan and Holmes said.

“In coordination with the overwhelming majority of local jurisdictions that oppose this unprecedented federal intrusion by the FCC, we will be appealing this order, challenging the FCC’s authority and its misguided interpretations of federal law,” they said.

5G cell service is already being deployed in limited settings, and the upgrade is expected to bring a dramatic upgrade in wireless data transmission speeds. However, because of the nature of the technology, 5G will require installation of significantly more “small-cell” antennas in urban neighborhoods.

The FCC’s order establishes a 60-day time limit for city governments to approve co-located installations on existing infrastructure, and a 90-day limit for new cellular infrastructure. It also caps the annual rental fee for light poles and utility poles at $270, and caps the application fee at $100.

Seattle city officials say the current rental fee is about $1,874.

“Seattle is working on innovative ways to lead on the deployment of next-gen technologies like 5G wireless networks. But we cannot support an order that commandeers city resources for private gain, limits municipal control over its own resources, and tramples local concerns over safety and access,” Durkan and Holmes said. “Joined by mayors across the country, Seattle is strongly in opposition to this overreach by the Trump administration.”

Update for 11 a.m. PT Oct. 2: Here’s additional context from Seattle Information Technology:

“The current process to install a small cell attachment in the City of Seattle involves several departments at the city. Unlike most Washington cities, Seattle is the owner of the utility poles on which most of these private small cell facilities are sought to be installed. So instead of seeking and obtaining permission from a third-party pole owner, in Seattle applicants must obtain permission from Seattle City Light, acting in its capacity as landlord of the city’s poles.  The current rental cost for these pole attachments is approximately $1,874 per pole per year, which is comparable to other cities nationally.

“Applicants must also obtain a permit from the Seattle Department of Transportation, acting as the regulator of the city’s street right of way in which the poles are located. Additionally, depending on the pole location, height, and type of pole, the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections, Department of Neighborhoods, and/or the city’s Design Commission may also be involved in the review process to evaluate the impact of the proposed facility on the safety, traffic control, and aesthetic. The FCC’s action will significantly impact this process and impede our ability to make decisions that are in the best interest of our city and neighborhoods.”

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