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City officials wary of federal agency interest in plans for broadband

Monday, June 6, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

City officials were warned last week that a federal agency could step in and tell the City of Austin how to handle right-of-way and other issues regarding the expansion of broadband Internet communications in the city.

 

“Be very afraid,” joked Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Manager Rondella Hawkins, who pulled no punches in talking to members of the Council Committee for Emerging Technology and Telecommunication Tuesday afternoon. 

 

Hawkins told Council Members Laura Morrison and Chris Riley that the Federal Communications Commission will be looking into local rights-of-way and facility siting practices. The FCC is investigating local policies through a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), in order to help increase broadband Internet penetration across the United States.

 

“An NOI is the FCC’s way of saying that they are going to ask a series of questions and then they are going to take some sort of action, like a rulemaking,” said Hawkins.

 

In this case, Hawkins explained, there is an agenda behind the request. While it does seek answers about local policies and access to right-of-way, the NOI “constantly premises those questions in the context that they are local regulatory barriers to providers that must be examined and corrected,” said Hawkins.

 

“We’re really concerned about them trying to federalize something that is a local issue,” said Hawkins.

 

If the federal government were to step in and standardize right-of-way fees, the City of Austin could lose quite a bit.  “Here in Austin we generate about $34 million annually in right-of-way fees, which are general revenues,” said Hawkins.

 

“If industry is using city-owned property, there should be some kind of remuneration for that, that seems fair,” Morrison told In Fact Daily. “Do I think that is a need-barrier, and that is why folks are not putting in broadband deployment? I don’t see that that’s what is holding people back. There is nothing to suggest that to me.”

 

Prior to the release of the NOI, several mayors, including Mayor Lee Leffingwell registered their opposition with letters sent to Vice President Joe Biden, the Texas Congressional Delegation, and the Chairman of the FCC.

 

There is currently an effort underway to encourage cities to comment on the NOI, to document local regulations and right-of-way fees and illustrate how they are not impacting broadband expansion negatively.

 

Additionally, the National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors, the US Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities are filing joint comments to address policy and legal issues.

 

“We don’t believe that the FCC has preemption jurisdiction over local rights of way, compensation, or management ordinances,” said Hawkins. “Our goal is to reverse the direction of the FCC, away from depriving local governments of our regulatory authority and toward correcting the behavior of industry.”

 

Hawkins told In Fact Daily that right-of-way fees are currently passed on directly to customers, and do not impact their bottom line.

 

Morrison noted that limited broadband expansion across the US might be attributed to factors other than complicated local regulations.

 

“Where they want to deploy their broadband is sort of a matter of where they think they are going to have enough business to make it profitable,” said Morrison.

 

Hawkins agreed, noting that the city had prescribed “reasonable build out requirements” to encourage equitable access. She speculated that a lack of penetration in urban areas could be attributed to affordability or a lack of understanding about broadband’s value, which could best be solved by education.

 

“It gets to be an issue that we run into sometimes — when does it make sense for local control to be overtaken by state or federal control? This is certainly one where I’m in favor of us, on the ground, at the local level, continuing to manage and have control over it,” Morrison told In Fact Daily.

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