Santa Fe’s often spotty wireless and cellphone service may be in for an upgrade.
A package of ordinance changes moving through the City Council approval process is intended to open up rights of way to telecommunications providers and encourage more competition over rates among service providers.
Matt Brown, the city’s economic development director, said residents shouldn’t expect to see improved service right away, or even in the next six months, if the proposed ordinances are approved, as expected.
“But it’s a huge step forward in trying to solve the problems broadly,” he said.
Also, there’s a legal hurdle to clear. Anti-wireless activists who consider wireless signals a health detriment have gone to court to block the proposed city franchise agreements with cell service providers.
At the state level, new legislation signed into law by the governor this year requires cities and counties to regulate telecommunications equipment placed in public rights of way. The measure says the local governments are to establish rates, fees, regulations and requirements for placing “small cellular provider facilities on municipal or county infrastructure,” according to a synopsis for the Wireless Consumer Advanced Infrastructure Investment Act.
In addition, the act allows wireless providers to install small wireless facilities in public rights of way, including on utility poles, at a cost not to exceed $250. The law, intended to prevent exclusive agreements that would create a monopoly, goes into effect in September.
The state action came after the City Council, last August, amended its own city code pertaining to the use of telecommunications equipment within public rights of way.
Now, five franchise agreements in the form of ordinance amendments are in the pipeline for possible City Council approval this spring.
Four of them were recently approved unanimously by the council’s Public Utilities Committee. If all of them stay on track during the committee review process – and the proposals survive the pending legal challenge – a public hearing will be held before the City Council May 9.
According to fiscal impact reports attached to the five proposals, opening public rights of way to telecommunication providers will benefit the community in several ways.
City staff says the franchise agreements will result in expanded cellular coverage throughout the city, increased redundancy of commercial telecommunications capabilities, better connectivity and quicker internet speeds. City residents may also benefit from lower retail prices that come from increased competition in the market.
Santa Fe residents and visitors alike have experienced unsteady cellphone service for about a year now. So much so that, in December, then-mayor Javier Gonzales declared an emergency – using authority granted to the mayor under the city’s riot control ordinance – because the unreliability of communications between police, fire and medical responders threatened public health and welfare. About a dozen temporary cell towers were, and still are, scattered around the city to improve reception.
A city spokesman said there are anecdotal reports that connectivity issues have improved markedly in recent weeks.
The change in state law and the city’s proposals won’t pertain to the big telecommunication towers, which are most often located on private land, said Brown. But residents may start noticing more smaller antenna and equipment placed on light poles.
“There will still be a Land Use review process for height and aesthetic limitations. This is being taken seriously,” he said.
Sean Moody, a former city government employee now under contract with the city as a consultant, said cellphone service problems within the city arose when Verizon and other carriers began offering unlimited data plans to customers. “What that did was cause usage to skyrocket and it overwhelmed their capabilities,” he said.
One thing companies like Verizon are doing to correct the problem is to reduce coverage ranges by becoming less reliant on the big cell towers people consider eyesores and increasing the number of smaller antennas.
“The strategy is to put in a lot of unobtrusive smaller towers to communicate with the big ones. We’re in the midst of seeing that change, and the city will do its best to make sure it’s as non-disruptive as possible,” Moody said.
Brown said local businesses won’t benefit much from increased internet speeds, except that they could make living in Santa Fe more appealing to prospective employees. These days, people expect their calls not to be dropped and their internet connections to work, especially inside the city limits.
“Our objective in economic development is to serve the entire community; it’s not limited to serving businesses,” he said.
The city Economic Development Department’s role, he said, is to create an environment that will attract businesses and allow them to grow. He mentioned the recent successes of Meow Wolf and Descartes Labs, which are bringing in talent from outside the state. To do that, what have become simple quality of life requirements, like the ability to reliably get online and make phone calls, need to be present.
“It’s quality of life for people who have been here, are contemplating moving here, and the quality of business performance” that’s important to them, Brown said.
Dating back to the days of Ma Bell, Santa Fe has always been served by her offspring – U.S. West, Qwest and now CenturyLink, which became the “incumbent” owner of the telecommunications network in the region, including the spur that runs from the CenturyLink exchange building downtown on East Alameda all the way to Albuquerque.
In 2010, when the company was operating as Qwest, a dispute over fees the city charged on gross receipts taxes as a form of compensation for use of the public rights of way wound up in court. Qwest also questioned whether city charges were in violation of federal law.
The city stopped issuing franchise agreements while the legal dispute played out. With that case settled in 2015, the city is now taking steps to open rights of way to other providers.
The proposals now under consideration at City Hall would grant franchises to Cyber Mesa, to which the city previously awarded a $1 million project to connect CenturyLink’s downtown exchange building to the Railyard; NMSURF, also a local company; Conterra Ultra Broadband, LLC, which has a broadband contract with Santa Fe Public Schools; Plateau Telecommunications, Inc., based in Clovis; and Broadband Network of New Mexico.
Broadband would pay a one-time fee for the franchise, then annual fees based on the number of poles and antennas that are installed.
The other four companies would pay the city a 2 percent franchise fee applied to gross charges. How much those fees will generate is unknown, according to city reports. But a March 23 memo from Brown suggests the city won’t make much from franchise fees.
“The new franchises will require no new capital or operating expenditures and will generate no net increase in franchise fee revenue,” the memo states, adding that “total franchise fee revenue will continue to decline as new competition lowers the retail rates on which most of the fees are based.”
Not everyone is happy about what’s happening.
Anti-wireless activist Arthur Firstenberg, artist Monika Steinhoff and the Santa Fe Alliance for Public Health and Safety filed a federal lawsuit against the city in February. They are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the telecommunications plans from advancing.
“We are suing to invalidate the ordinance under which the franchises are being adopted,” Firstenberg said, adding that he thinks the ordinances are illegal and violate due process. The city’s motion to dismiss the suit is awaiting a judge’s ruling.
Firstenberg said what the city is doing is part of a telecom industry-led effort sweeping the nation. “This is all about 5G, and it’s happening all over the country,” he said. “The industry is lobbying hard at the federal level, the state level and the city level.”
Some communities are pushing back, he said. But already 18 states, including New Mexico with its Wireless Consumer Advanced Infrastructure Investment Act, have adopted laws that will contribute to the proliferation of telecommunication antennas.
“There are going to be cell towers in front of your house mounted on existing utility poles. This will cause enormous environmental and health issues,” said Firstenberg, who suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity and brought a long-running lawsuit against a neighbor for her use of electronic devices like her computer and cellphone.
The industry’s objective is to provide faster bandwidth, which Firstenberg said would result in “many, many more antennas. Five-G will require an antenna at least every 200 yards everywhere.”
Firstenberg, a Cornell University-educated scientist who last year published the book “The Invisible Rainbow, a History of Electricity and Life,” said he is part of a network of people from all over the world trying to stop the expansion from happening, but “it’s gathering steam, the momentum for it is like a freight train.”
He and his group hope to stop the train in Santa Fe by coming out in force to the May 9 public hearing.
City Councilor Mike Harris, who is sponsoring each of the five city ordinance amendments, said he thinks the city is obligated to revise its laws.
“It’s my understanding that our municipality, our city, is responding to federal legislation, as well as state legislation,” he said.
The documents relating to each of the applicants for use of the rights of way say that not enacting the city changes “may expose the city to the possibility of legal claims under federal and state law.”