How Counties Are Addressing Their Digital Divides

Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Phoenix in Maricopa County, Arizona. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

Maricopa County, Arizona is fast-tracking 5G deployment, while Wise County, Texas wants to partner with providers on “middle mile” projects.

WASHINGTON — One of the leaders of Arizona’s most populous counties advocated Monday for local governments to take a hands-off approach to fifth-generation wireless deployments.

Speaking at the National Association of Counties legislative conference in D.C., Bill Gates, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, said the speedy spread of 5G is the No. 1 economic development issue for his large, metropolitan county over the next five years.

It’s not just a matter of the service itself, but the spread of fast internet connectivity through 5G will allow other technologies to take root, he said. Small cell infrastructure is critical to smart home water conservation, Waymo’s testing of self-driving cars, and the county’s Connected Vehicles Program—allowing them to communicate with traffic signals and aimed at improving air quality, Gates said.

“If the counties and local authorities impose reasonable fees and work with these wireless carriers it’s going to speed the process, and, therefore, it should lead to lower prices,” Gates said. “We’re certainly trying to do our part by not throwing up—just my opinion, and it may not be popular—a lot of roadblocks over the color of a backpack-size small cell.”

Aesthetics don’t concern the county, Gates said, and neither does the approval time limits and caps on fees that local governments can impose on service providers. The Federal Communications Commission in September imposed those limits on local government permitting of small cells—some of which was inspired by Maricopa County.

But there has been intense pushback from local governments, including lawsuits that have challenged the order. Many local officials have said the FCC’s fee limits don’t take into account the real costs for cities of processing applications, while emphasizing that private companies are making use of publicly maintained infrastructure.

NACo also has come out against the FCC’s rule, which went into partial effect on Jan. 14, and in late February 80 mayors signed a letter of support for U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo’s bill that would undo the order should their lawsuits fail.

Gates sits on the FCC Intergovernmental Advisory Commission and said the rule’s 90-day limit on the approval of new poles for small cell deployment was based off Maricopa County’s own resolution. In 2017, Arizona passed a law limiting small cell permitting fees to $100 and structure rates to $175 a year, which the county adheres to precisely.

By statute, Maricopa County can only get involved with providers when they want to mount a small cell on its streetlights, but utilities own all other poles in the jurisdiction and handle permissions for those—unless they involve ground equipment connecting to the public right of way.

“We think we got a fair rate,” Gates said.

Wise County, Texas, has its own broadband internet challenges—namely its economic development corporations continue to miss out on state requests for proposals for new business projects because they fail to meet the minimum internet requirements, said J.D. Clark, a county judge.

So the county cosponsored a broadband infrastructure study with its Decatur and Bridgeport EDCs.

“People didn’t hold back on what type of service they were getting,” Clark said.

The county now knows where its “middle mile” problems—gaps between where providers’ fiber ends and business parks’ fiber begins—are and was able to work with NACo to include funding for middle mile programs in the five-year, $867 billion federal farm bill reauthorization. Wise County’s study cost the jurisdiction $35,000, but planning studies can now be covered with farm bill funds, Clark said.

The need to identify gaps in broadband access makes NACo’s new TestIT app, which will crowdsource speed maps to compete with the FCC’s much-criticized maps drawn up based on provider data, a welcome tool, Clark said. The findings “should be pretty humbling” for providers, he added.

“We get this rosy sales picture of what broadband is,” Clark said. “But that’s not what people are experiencing on the ground.”

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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