An opinion piece written by Jerome Delvin, a Benton County commissioner and former state senator, was recently published in the Tri-City Herald. Mr. Delvin claims that local governments are erecting unnecessary barriers to expanding the deployment of fifth-generation (5G) telecom services, by charging prohibitive fees for attaching to power and light poles and unrealistic permitting requirements. He believes this is preventing tens of millions of dollars from being invested in our state.
I respectively disagree with Mr. Delvin’s conclusions, and am writing this response to give another point of view.
5G cellular technology will place mini cell towers all over our communities. Every 500 feet you’ll see a small canister on power poles and light poles. There is no question that this will improve the cellular experience of many users. The question is, who pays for those pole attachments?
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Should deployment of new technology be paid for by the telecom industry, whose primary purpose is to bring profit back to its shareholders? Or should you and I subsidize their efforts?
Legislators enacted RCW 54.04.045 in 2008. The law established a method for calculating the rates for pole attachments, and it clearly stated that it was doing so to ensure that PUD customers do not subsidize companies that attach to their poles.
The telecom industry challenged the law in a suit against the smallest PUD in the state (Pacific County PUD). With a classic David vs. Goliath outcome, the PUD prevailed. The current rates were found to be “just, reasonable, non-discriminatory, and sufficient.” The telecom industry made another run at it with Senate Bill 5711, which attempts to decrease their utility attachment rates as much as 70 percent.
A fatal flaw of Senate Bill 5711 is that all pole attachments would be subsidized, including what has already been installed. Utility ratepayers could very well end up with a rate increase to pay for this subsidy, with no obligation of the telecom companies to even build out a 5G network.
Mr. Delvin also claims that carriers must spend many months and thousands of dollars to obtain permits for each of these canisters. I’m not sure where he got this information, but the turnaround time for pole attachment permits in our community is about 15 days.
So what’s the real issue here? Is Washington state really missing out on tens of millions of dollars in telecom investments, as Mr. Delvin claims? I doubt it. Market forces and healthy competition will continue to drive the expansion of the telecom industry. The only guarantee that Senate Bill 5711 gives us is a guarantee of money leaving the pockets of ratepayers and going into the pockets of telecom companies.
Lori Sanders is a local business owner and Benton PUD commissioner.