CA lawmakers should withdraw AB 537, SB 556 in favor of more sustainable telecommunications

Illustration of a school with towering cell towers
Kelsey Choe/Staff

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Imagine a cell tower transmitter being erected in front of your home. There were only 45 to 60 days for your city government to do a proper review for environmental, health and safety risks to you and your neighbors — a government already inundated with the tasks of keeping your community safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the cell transmitter application fell through the cracks, so it was not addressed within the allotted time period.

In this scenario, the application was approved under the stipulations of California’s AB 537 and SB 556 bills. Thus, the wireless carrier was able to move forward and begin construction of the cell tower transmitter without any government review.

As a commissioner for the Alameda County Consumer Affairs Commission, my work involves studying and assessing emerging policies that impact the residents in the area in such a way that warrants particular attention to consumer protection. Such is the case with two bills currently in the California State Legislature — AB 537 and SB 556 — which should compel all residents of the state, including those in Berkeley and the rest of the county, to take action to ensure the safety and integrity of our community environment.

Introduced by Assemblymember Bill Quirk, AB 537 imparts strict timelines for cities and counties to respond to cell tower applications and allows carriers to start construction if timelines lapse. Its sister bill, SB 556, ensures that local governments have almost no chance to deny the leasing of street lights, traffic signals or utility poles for small cell transmitters. Legislators want these bills to ensure broadband access and were spurred on by the pandemic lockdowns.

If passed, AB 537 and SB 556 as written will accelerate the placement of cell tower transceivers in communities throughout California. Not only would this happen without proper deference to the future technological realities of information and communications systems, but the current bills also lack proper procedures to ensure environmental and consumer protection. Furthermore, the bills are being fast-tracked through the California State Legislature without including the checks and balances needed to serve the public interest.

Of particular concern are the provisions that provide default variances in order to accelerate the distribution of cell tower transceivers without proper due diligence. One such acceleration provision in AB 537 states that, by definition, applications for cell towers shall be “deemed approved, and all necessary permits shall be deemed issued and the applicant may begin construction,” if short-term time parameters are not met. Given the plethora of known economic, environmental and safety risks associated with the buildout of this technology, this type of acceleration is shortsighted and dangerous.

There is a better way than the unbridled rush presented in AB 537 and SB 556.

Telecommunications experience over the past three decades, bolstered most recently by congressional testimony from telecommunications industry executives and luminaries, makes clear that a fiber optic-based broadband infrastructure must extend all the way to building premises in order to achieve maximum speed, capacity, sustainability and otherwise optimal performance. Instead of wireless small cell placement on utility poles and street lights, fiber optic cables can be run directly to every home and business aerially or underground, allowing for super high-speed information transmission through glass and polymer tubes.

Federal legislation is moving in this direction, and it is imperative that California follows a compatible approach. Furthermore, the carbon footprint of wireless infrastructure is estimated to be much greater than fiber to the premises, or FTTP, creating an ongoing and significant impact on climate change. The arbitrary buildout contemplated in these bills that incorporates potentially soon-to-be obsolete technology is not only environmentally dangerous but also a waste of taxpayer dollars.

These bills, under the noble cause of expanding broadband access, contain ill-advised provisions that would defeat their ascribed purpose should they pass. I am asking the county’s citizens to call on Quirk to withdraw AB 537 and to encourage Sen. Bill Dodd, his counterpart and SB 556’s sponsor, to do the same in favor of more effective, efficient and sustainable FTTP for internet connectivity.

Finally, there are authority provisions in AB 537 and SB 556 that are an affront to local control. As most city governments throughout the state have limited resources to rigorously consider this expansion, in addition to the strain brought about by the response demands associated with the pandemic, added pressures mean mistakes would likely be made that would undoubtedly have long-term ramifications across communities if these bills are passed.

The elected officials promoting these acceleration bills believe they are doing the right thing, but they are wrong. We need internet connectivity to thrive in the modern world, but we must move forward with proper due diligence in order to ensure that all the short- and long-term risks associated are assessed and managed in the process.

My request for Quirk and Dodd is simple: Slow down, complete proper due diligence and deliver to the people of Alameda County and the state of California at large the best telecommunications future possible by withdrawing these bills and championing an FTTP future instead.

Marlene Hurd is the vice chair of the Alameda County Consumer Affairs Commission. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.