The Future of 5G In Washington State

The Future of 5G Networks In Washington State
As private utility companies look to expand 5G networks across the state, some lawmakers want to streamline the permitting process. SB 5711 would preempt local government control over pole attachments in an effort to encourage greater 5G access, but failed to clear the Senate before a cutoff date this week. Photo:

The expansion of 5th generation (5G) mobile networks technology is expected to create three million new jobs and increase the nation’s annual GDP by $500 billion. That is according to a new study by Accenture Strategy. Steve Forbes of Forbes Magazine recently described 5G as the nation’s greatest infrastructure project since construction of the interstate highway system was first authorized in the 1950s. The expansion could mean faster, better Internet speeds for Washington residents when using their tablets, cell phones, computers, and other wireless electronic devices.

Not Passing Up 5G Networks Expansion Opportunities

However, State Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) warns that Washington could lose out on much of that anticipated economic growth if lawmakers don’t remove barriers that he says discourage the installation of 5G networks via small cell facilities on local poles. He is the primary sponsor of SB 5711, which would streamline local permitting rules and reduce the rate public utility districts (PUD) can use when charging for pole access.

Ericksen is also chair of the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Telecommunications. At a February 8 public hearing of that committee, described the bill as “one of the single largest job-creating pieces of legislation that we are going to address in the legislature this year.”

Telecom companies also testifying at the February 8 public hearing said the changes would ensure regulatory certainty and increase Washington’s competitiveness with other states looking to expand their 5G networks. However, the bill failed to clear the State Senate after a Wednesday, March 8 cutoff date and remains in Rules. Much of the bill’s opposition stems from concerns by municipalities and PUDs that say the bill would preempt local control and force them to undercharge private utility providers.

Bill’s Future Uncertain This Session

SB 5711 backers hope to find ways to bring the issue back before the legislature before the session adjourns. In a March 7 statement, Ericksen said that “we have a decision to make in this state. Do we want our wireless and broadband networks to look like a two-lane bottleneck on I-5, or do we want to become a world leader on this new 5G superhighway?”

However, State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) says it will be “pretty difficult” for the bill to get passed after the cutoff date. Although he originally voted in favor of the bill when it passed out of Energy, Environment and Telecommunication, he later proposed two amendments retaining local government control over pole attachment permits and preserving the PUDs rate formula.

He told Lens that “we need more deployment” of better Internet service across the state. “Small businesses and others are desperate for deployment in small rural areas. I just hope we can come together with something that helps both sides, something that works for everybody.”

SB 5711 Cosponsors are State Sens. Steve Hobbs (D-44) and Guy Palumbo (D-1). The companion bill in the House is HB 1921, sponsored by State Rep. Jeff Morris (D-40). It failed to clear House Committee on Technology and Economic Development after a February 8 public hearing.

Under state law, local governments authorize permits for telecom companies seeking access to rights of way, or public land. Private utility companies are regulated by the Utilities and Transportation Commission, while PUDS are regulated locally. Although private companies can charge recovery costs for attachments to their poles, they use a different formula than PUDs.

According to the SB 5711 bill report, the legislation would require municipalities allow a private utility company access to one of their poles if the city has already allowed other companies to install attachments. They would be able to charge a company up to $500 annually for the pole use. Also, a permit application for pole access would be automatically authorized after 90 days if not already issued by the municipality.

SB 5711 would also take the rate structure used by private utilities when charging other companies using poles and apply it to PUDS.

Incentivizing Network Growth In Washington

Joanie Deutsch is the Executive Director of the Northwest for TechNet, a bipartisan policy and political network with more than 70 members. During the February 8 public hearing, she told committee members that “this legislation will accelerate the deployment and investment of broadband infrastructure throughout Washington state.”

“To make Washington competitive, we need to break down barriers, encourage and facilitate deployment in every way possible,” she added. “This bill streamlines the permitting process for small cell technology, requires municipal and PUD to adhere to same pole attachment rates that private utilities charge and extends the state universal fund for rural telephone carriers.”

Rhonda Weaver is the Senior Director of State Government Affairs for Comcast. She told the committee that “every year in this state, Comcast adds about 500 miles of new broadband facilities. We need certainty in those rates, terms and conditions. This bill does that.”

In agreement was Ron Main, Executive Director of the Broadband Communications Association of Washington.  “I want to make it clear that we don’t have any choice but to use the poles in the rights of way. Basically you got one set of poles. We’re not looking for a free lunch. Cable, wireline, wireless companies all pay substantial franchise fees and utilities taxes to local governments in this state. We’re just looking for predictability.”

Cities, Utility Districts Fear Loss of Autonomy

However, the bill is opposed by municipalities and public utility districts that say it oversimplifies the permitting process and deprives them of local control over how the attachments are done.

Jill Boudreau is mayor of the City of Mount Vernon. She told the committee that “the proposed bill as written undermines the city’s obligation and ability to effectively manage its rights of way.”

Rose Feliciano with Seattle City Light concurred. “It does strip away our rights to be able to control the safety and access to our right of way. We want to work with carriers to ensure 5G deployment. But we need to ensure that we have safety and we have proper control over our rights of way and it’s safe not just for the workers, but also for the public.”

However, the process must be improved if Washington wants to reap the anticipated economic growth, said Weaver.

“Investment flows through the path of least resistance,” she said. “We’re competing within our own companies with Oregon and Kansas and Texas, and if they can do it faster and better, they’ll get the investment first.”


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