Telecom companies ask for fewer regulations to expand broadband

The Missouri Senate is considering a set of bills that reduce land-use regulations for cell towers.

Representatives from several major telecom companies told a Missouri Senate committee Tuesday reducing municipal regulations would help them improve broadband statewide.

Tuesday's hearing concerned a set of five bills that reduce cities' power to regulate construction of and improvements to cell towers. A similar measure passed the legislature last year with almost no dissenting votes and was signed into law, but a court blocked the law's implementation on the grounds that lawmakers put too many provisions into a single bill.

Two of the bills cap the fees cities and land management companies can charge telecom providers. Another changes the procedure for resolving disputes between cities and companies. Currently, a panel of three appraisers is needed. The new measure would reduce that number to one and require any arbitration to happen in a Missouri court.

Doug Galloway, CenturyLink's Director of Governmental Affairs, said many cities are not clear about accessing right-of-way for cell towers. AT&T regional vice president Craig Unruh said towns sometimes deny permits for laying fiber optic cables between cell towers, a step critical to installing 4G LTE networks.

Officials representing cities from across the state said they opposed the measures. All of them said the existing regulatory environment posed no problems in past negotiations. Blue Springs City Administrator Eric Johnson said he has personally negotiated many right-of-way issues involving cell towers and has never had any problems with existing ordinances getting in the way, nor have residents ever complained that the process took too long. Ryan Shrimplin, Cape Girardeau's city planner, said the legislation does not define what "unreasonable" regulations are and reduces transparency in the approval process.

Bill sponsor Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, acknowledged there are only a handful of places in Missouri where cities and telecom companies are at odds but insisted the measures are needed to prevent the problem from spreading.

At some point, we have to decide, do we want broadband in this state," he said. "How fast do we want that broadband to be deployed, what hurdles are we gonna make them jump through?"

The measures have not yet reached the senate floor, but given the track record last year's measure amassed---a unanimous vote in the senate, seven dissenting votes in the house, and the governor's signature---passage appears likely.