US House Committee Advances Bill to Gut Local Zoning and Community Input, Advance Corporate Interests

Last week, the US House Commerce Committee approved, on a party-line vote, H.R. 3557, the “American Broadband Act of 2023.” This bill advances corporate interests at the expense of community input and needs.

H.R. 3557 represents an unprecedented and troubling usurpation of local authority to manage public rights-of-way and land use decisions in favor of cable, wireless, and telecommunications providers. Equally alarming, the bill imposes no obligations on those companies to provide broadband to unserved Americans.

Maryland’s local governments have successfully partnered with both the wireline and wireless industries in local infrastructure deployment through decades of evolving technology. This legislation would unnecessarily upend those partnerships and jeopardize efforts to expand broadband to unserved areas across the state.

Wireless/Telecom: Usurps State & Local Government Police Powers & Property Rights

  • Mandates that all wireless siting decisions be “deemed granted” if not acted upon by a local government within much shorter periods than the federal government for similar projects. The federal government has 270 days to act, while locals must act as fast as 60 days.
  • Provides no public safety protections for construction of “deemed granted” facilities. The bill mandates sites be constructed “without any further action by the government,” without notice to the local government, or obligation to comply with safety laws.
  • Imposes artificially short timelines that are virtually impossible to meet, creates technical grounds for defeating incompleteness notices that would pause the shot clock, and requires a local government to draft, publish, and deliver to an applicant on the same day that the local governing body hears and votes on the application, a written denial decision with reasons. In addition, the bill mandates “all proceedings required by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof for the approval of the request” be taken within the timeline.
  • Empowers providers to install facilities where they choose regardless of local zoning, thus eliminating the ability of local government to balance providers’ and neighbors’ interests while jeopardizing the capacity of local governments to impose reasonable standards.
  • Limits all local fees to a local government’s objectively reasonable costs, which, unlike the current FCC rules, the local government must justify based on a complex rate-making formula.
  • Substitutes the FCC for local federal district court as reviewing body for challenges to decisions,
  • Imposes new and similarly flawed timelines and “deemed granted” remedies on applications for wireline telecommunications facilities

Cable: Removes the Ability of State and Local Franchise Authorities to Enforce Franchises

  • Eliminates cable franchise renewals, thereby removing the ability of state or local franchise authority to enforce franchise obligations such as PEG, customer service, and build-out. It grants a cable operator the right to terminate a franchise but creates no obligation to remove the cable system from rights-of-way.
  • Affirmatively grants cable operators the right to provide non-cable services while prohibiting localities from imposing any fees on cable operators’ non-cable services.

The National Association of Counties (NACo), alongside the National League of Cities (NLC), the US Conference of Mayors (USCM), and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), urged the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology to reject legislation that would infringe upon local authorities before an April 19 markup of the component bills to H.R. 3557. A link to the letter can be found here.

According to NACo:

Counties strongly urge Congress to preserve all local land use and zoning authorities throughout the stages of deployment of broadband infrastructure projects. Counties stand ready to serve as partners in the deployment of broadband infrastructure projects, and a preemption of local decision-making authority would only subvert the intentions of historic federally-funded broadband programs by reducing the ability of counties to ensure deployment projects will meet all community needs.

NACo will host a national membership call on the legislation on Friday, June 2, at 3:00 pm. Register for the call here.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.