Texas cities fear loss of millions as 5G becomes reality

Telecom node (KXAN photo)
Telecom node (KXAN photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Municipal League says a bill coming up for a vote in the Texas House will cheat local governments by hundreds of millions of dollars.

In an attempt to build a future framework for wireless internet and 5G nearly all lawmakers are siding with major telecommunication companies at the expense of the cities.

A TML analysis shows Texas city governments would lose $750 million per year once 5G is in all Texas cities. State Bill 1004 by Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, would drastically lower the price cities charge for use of their public lands for mini-cell towers called network nodes.

The city of Austin just signed an agreement with major companies AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, charging them $1,500 per year per node. Houston and Dallas negotiated a rate of $2,500. SB 1004 would cap that fee at $250.

“Cities all across Texas have negotiated agreements with cell phone companies allowing them to put their equipment on city property, just like other utilities. But now those companies want a state law to cut those negotiated fees in many cases to just one-tenth of what they had agreed to pay,” TML Executive Director Bennett Sandlin said in a press release blasting the bill.

The city of Austin made their agreement last October and has no active nodes operating yet, but Mayor Steve Adler worries this is a loss of local control.

“The legislature is weighing in with considerable weight,” said Mayor Adler.

He describes how SB 1004 would also take power away from the city to regulate how many nodes go into the public right of way and where they’re placed. It opens up for telecommunication companies to have access to traffic signals, street lights and city signs.

“Now the legislature is stepping in and taking what is highly coveted public space and turning it into cheap utility corridors,” said Adler.

The main sponsors of the bill, Senator Hancock, Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, have not responded to a KXAN interview request after multiple attempts.

The ideas largest supporter, AT&T, is backing up the idea.

Dave Nichols, President of AT&T Texas responded, “Senator Kelly Hancock has worked with all parties, including the wireless industry, cities and other interested parties, to craft a bill that will bring tomorrow’s technology to Texas quickly.”

In earlier legislative committees, company spokesperson expanded on why this bill is needed for the future of wireless telecommunications.

“It’s to give our customers an effortless, wireless customer experience,” Ryan Tidwell from AT&T’s engineering department told lawmakers in a spring committee hearing, “Things like 4K video, the internet of things, connected cars, smart cities. They all start with 5G.”

T-Mobile, Verizon, and Century Link is listed as neutral on the bill.

The Texas Municipal League President says if this bill fails, Texans could still get quality internet access.

“Cities want this technology,” said Sandlin, “Cities also want electric power lines, gas lines, telephone and cable television lines, but when they go on taxpayer-owned property it should be done with city oversight and city standards.”

Every senator present voted for the bill earlier this year. It is scheduled for a vote in the Texas House, Wednesday.

A Longtime Lobbying Powerhouse 

Telecommunications companies and AT&T in particular are extremely effective in the Texas legislature. According to the watchdog group, Texans for Public Justice, AT&T ranks number one again this year for the amount of lobbyists.

According to the Texas Ethics Commission they have more than 100 lobbyists, paying them $7.7 million. That’s an average of $75,000 per lobbyist to convince lawmakers to write and pass bills. Director of Research for Texans for Public Justice, Andrew Wheat, says that’s not all.

“AT&T wields not only a stick in the form of a lobby but a carrot in the form of campaign contributions,” said Wheat.

According to Texans for Public Justice, AT&T donated almost $2 million last year to Texas officials, including tens of thousands to the authors of the bill.

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