State House hangs up on pair of telecommunications bills

mlee@macon.comMarch 8, 2013 

ATLANTA -- In a battle pitting cities and counties against the companies that set up cell towers and sell Internet access, the state House of Representatives has gone with the governments, killing a pair of bills that would have taken away some local power over cell tower siting and public Internet access.

House Bill 176 is “ludicrous legislation,” said Fort Valley Mayor John Stumbo, hours before the Thursday deadline for the House to either pass or kill the bill that would grant telecommunications companies default approval for cell tower building unless a jurisdiction turns it down within 150 days.

“If they can’t find any site (for a tower) except what’s in a subdivision, that’s their problem,” he said. The bill “obliterates city police power.”

Supporters said the bipartisan bill would have streamlined approvals and improved cell phone coverage in rural areas.

Despite being pulled off the House debate calendar for adjustments last month, state representatives still had the chance to approve House Bill 176. Stumbo, like many mayors and county commissioners, was watching closely.

He and his colleagues had to wait past suppertime for an answer.

They had to wait that long to find out about broadband as well. House Bill 282 proposed banning most cities, counties or groups of governments from setting up broadband service in areas served by a private company at a speed of at least 3 megabits per second. Fort Valley and a dozen or so other jurisdictions have set up their own broadband.

The bill has attracted attention nationwide, most recently with a Wall Street Journal article that tracks similar telecommunications company-driven moves in other states.

House Bill 282 would not have made much of a difference in privately well-wired urban and suburban areas, but many rural legislators got riotous during a floor debate.

“This is a utility,” said state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who put high-speed broadband on a par with electricity, sewers and telephones in importance for economic development. When his city had a sole, private Internet provider, Powell said, “they knew they were the only game in town and they didn’t have to do a darn thing” to get the Internet up to speed.

So Camilla started laying its own fiber optic lines.

“We did not want to get into the business,” Powell said, “but to survive and provide for our citizens, someone had to do it.”

Three megabits per second is not enough bandwidth for a single school, Powell said.

State Rep. Debbie Buckner, D-Junction City, said Troup, Meriwether, Heard and Upson counties looked at running their own broadband because they could not attract a private provider. Their research suggested some of their existing fiber optic lines could be used for such a network.

Buckner said now-private companies are starting to say they might be interested “if (they) can use the government infrastructure.”

Bill supporters just as passionately denounced public Internet.

State Rep. Tom Rice, R-Norcross, said his suburban Atlanta city of Peachtree Corners makes money from franchise fees, the money utilities pay to string their wires or fibers over or through city turf.

Bill sponsor state Rep. Mark Hamilton, R-Cumming, defended his bill.

“You cannot use tax dollars to go compete with those private companies. There is the crux of this bill. What this bill is all about is free market versus government dollars,” he said.

Some cities have gotten into the broadband business and gotten out, sometimes losing millions of dollars.

“This is a high-risk business and a technologically advancing business,” Hamilton said.

After an hour of debate, House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, called for the vote. It split the legislators into no clear pattern in a chamber that usually votes unanimously or along party lines. Both Republicans and Democrats, and rural and urban legislators fell on both sides of the divide. They rejected the proposal by a vote of 70 for and 94 against.

Less than an hour after that, House Republican leadership let the cell tower siting bill fall off the agenda for the year. They closed day 30 of the annual 40-day session without a vote on it.

Proposed laws have to pass one chamber or the other by that so-called Crossover Day, or, barring a near-miraculous amendment to another bill, they’re dead for the year.

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