Solana Beach among cities opposed to telecoms bill regulating wireless facilities

Solana Beach City Hall
(Staff file photo)

A bill in the state Legislature that seeks to improve high-speed internet availability by reducing local control over the installation of the necessary infrastructure has passed the Senate over the objection of its opponents in local government.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar bill in 2017. The newest iteration, SB 556 by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would allow telecommunications companies to place box-like wireless facilities on street light and traffic signal poles, and limit the legal grounds for local governments to deny them. It also specifies the timelines for local governments to process the applications for those wireless facilities and places restrictions on the local fees that can be charged for granting that access.

Dodd has said the goal is to improve internet access throughout the region, particularly in low-income communities, as more people rely on the internet for working from home and distance learning.

Solana Beach is one of the cities lobbying against the bill, in part because of its own ongoing fiber optic installation to improve high-speed internet access. In a letter sent to the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee on April 5, Mayor Lesa Heebner also wrote that the city’s narrow rights-of-way and proximity to “environmentally sensitive lagoon areas” were two of the key reasons why the city wants to retain local control over its infrastructure.

But on April 19, 11 of the 14 members of the committee voted in favor of the bill. After another successful committee hearing, it cleared the Senate on a 31-2 vote. The bill is awaiting its first committee hearings in the Assembly, where a sister bill called AB 537 is also pending.

In an interview, Heebner said SB 556 is “another example of Sacramento trying to take local authority from us, not just on housing but now on our light poles.”

The bill lists aesthetic and safety standards as potential reasons for local governments to deny wireless facilities in given locations, but local leaders statewide remain wary.

“Our aesthetics are very different than Fresno’s or San Francisco’s or El Cajon’s,” Heebner said. “We have our own standards and we would like to make sure that we’re able to have some say over what happens on our own infrastructure.”

Dodd said in a statement last month that the Senate’s approval of SB 556 is a key step toward “ensuring everyone can cross the digital divide.”

“Mountains of red tape have prevented much-needed improvements to the internet at a time when families are relying more on it for remote school and work,” Dodd’s statement read.

John M. Eger, a San Diego State professor and former legal assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said the debate on who should hold the power over telecommunications infrastructure dates back 20 years.

About 15 years ago, for example, there was a similar legislative battle over cable. The result was a bill, AB 2987, that consolidated power with the state Public Utilities Commission to issue franchises to video providers, as opposed to cities issuing those franchises.

Eger questioned the way SB 556 could prohibit cities from carrying out their own visions of the “infrastructure of the future.”

“I vote in favor of giving more power to the cities all the time,” Eger said.

Susan Foster, a local activist who helped provide input for an ordinance in Encinitas that regulated 5G tower placement, is also opposed to SB 556. She said it’s the latest attempt to codify the FCC’s Small Cell Order of 2018, which was designed to curb regulations that could inhibit the deployment of 5G. During the bill’s first committee hearing in the Senate last month, she focused on the potential fire risks.

In an interview, Foster mentioned the history of telecommunications infrastructure breakdowns that have led to wildfires, including a 2007 blaze in Malibu Canyon.

“They don’t want anything to impede the progress of 5G, but what’s been lost here is basic safety,” she said.