More than 10.7 million low-income households in the United States lack access to quality internet service. In cities like San Jose, Calif., local governments are using streetlight poles to facilitate equitable access to high-speed internet to dramatically improve educational outcomes for low-income students and expand economic opportunity for their families. Unfortunately, a recent mandate by the Federal Communications Commission might halt the progress made by these cities.
Access to reliable, high-speed internet service — commonly referred to broadband — has become a necessity, not a luxury. An overwhelming majority of public-school teachers assign homework that requires online access, leaving far too many students unable to perform the basic tasks critical for academic success. The sight of public-school students finishing their algebra homework in fast-food restaurants and coffee shops, where they have access to free public Wi-Fi, has compelled hundreds of cities and school districts to find ways to bridge what one official has called “the cruelest part of the digital divide”: the homework gap.
Cities throughout the United States increasingly look to their own streetlight poles to meet this challenge. Because of their optimal height and access to power, the poles can enable emerging telecommunications technologies to deliver high-quality cellular and data service (and eventually 5G service) using small cell devices, and public broadband using Wi-Fi-transmitting hardware. In addition, the ubiquitous presence of streetlight poles can make it easier to deliver high-quality wireless and internet service more equitably throughout a city and connect those low-income neighborhoods that remain vastly underserved.
Sensing this enormous opportunity, many mayors in the United States have welcomed the opportunity to partner with the private sector to equip their city-owned streetlight poles with these new technologies and achieve more equitable access in their communities. However, the telecommunications industry has quietly worked to usurp control over these coveted public assets and utilize publicly owned streetlight poles for their own profit, not the public benefit.
Since 2017, the F.C.C. has pushed an industry-friendly proposal to mandate that cities offer below-market, taxpayer-subsidized lease rates to telecommunications providers that want to use streetlight poles. The mandate overrides local authority to negotiate with these companies over lease terms like the small-cell devices’ location, size, appearance or any contribution to enable more equitable or affordable internet service. Many have condemned this as a corporate giveaway that comes at the expense of local taxpayers and low-income residents, while industry lobbyists assert that the high streetlight pole lease rates demanded by city governments interfere with their need for rapid communications infrastructure deployment.
In Silicon Valley’s largest city, San Jose — where almost 100,000 residents lack a broadband connection in their homes — we set out to prove the F.C.C. and industry lobbyists wrong. We believed that if we could strike agreements with cellular providers for streamlined deployment (which benefits the telecommunications industry) and substantial digital equity (which benefits our community), then the industry’s calls for pre-emption would seem moot.
And that’s exactly what we did. This year, we approved landmark deals with several carriers that called for San Jose to facilitate rapid permitting and installation of thousands of small cells — the largest deployment of them in the nation. In exchange, the companies agreed to pay millions of dollars into a Digital Inclusion Fund to pay for broadband connectivity in low-income neighborhoods.
In the East San Jose Union High School District, for example, the Digital Inclusion Fund will help us install more Wi-Fi-transmitting hardware on public street poles to provide internet access to the homes of predominantly low-income students. We will also use the fund to expand the distribution of free internet hot spots and devices through schools serving our poorest students and increase the availability of our popular after-school coding classes at libraries.
Upon announcing one such deal to the media in June, AT&T described it as “an example of a long-term, model lease agreement” for other cities. An F.C.C. commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, posted the San Jose agreements on the agency’s website and encouraged other cities to follow suit. The nonpartisan Brookings Institution described the agreement as the “pièce de résistance” of how cities and carriers can work together.
Our celebration was short-lived. On Sept. 26, the F.C.C. adopted new rules proposed by Commissioner Brendan Carr, over the strenuous objections of local governments across the country. The new rules force local jurisdictions to provide telecom companies with unfettered access to public streetlight poles at below-market, taxpayer-subsidized lease rates. By eviscerating the ability of cities to negotiate with industry, the rules undermine widespread local efforts to broaden access for less affluent families and create an uncertain future for some existing agreements. The rules reduce costs to the industry, but do nothing to ensure that those savings will benefit consumers or the taxpaying public. Industry lobbyists now seek to have Congress enshrine the rules in a federal statute, and a Senate bill awaits a committee hearing.
For all of these reasons, San Jose has joined 20 other cities to challenge the commission’s new rules in court. Unless mayors and cities take action, the industry will largely ignore unprofitable, low-income neighborhoods. In cities like San Jose — where a majority of the families making less $35,000 have no high-quality internet access at home — students will face educational barriers dictated wholly by their parents’ income.
We can do better. The F.C.C.’s new rules represent a triumph of corporate self-interest over principle. Throughout the nation, local taxpayers will bear the cost of this subsidy to Big Telecom. They won’t do so alone, however: Too many 13-year-olds will continue doing their algebra homework in a parking lot, within range of the free Wi-Fi of their neighborhood Burger King.
Sam Liccardo is the mayor of San Jose, Calif.
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