Return of the Franchise Wars?

Carl Weinschenk
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2016 Business Communications: Changing the Way We Work

Many years ago, at what was arguably the dawn of the modern telecommunications era, cable companies negotiated with local officials for franchises. Those franchises represented, more or less, a license to print money. The municipalities knew this, and often extracted significant concessions from the cable company.

The world is a lot more complicated today. Of course, battles between municipalities and telecom providers didn’t stop with the end of what are referred to as the franchise wars. It seems, however, that a dynamic is emerging that may be a version of that old tension between local governments and telecom players.

Last week, I wrote about Sprint deferring a good deal of the capital investment that it had planned for its current fiscal year. What is significant in the context of tension between the government and industry is that much of the delayed spending is in Sprint’s small cell initiatives. Local approvals are coming slowly. The sense is that if Sprint were forced by economic conditions to put something on the shelf, it may as well be the projects that are not getting approved anyway.


It is impossible to say if the delays are legitimate or due to a power play by the municipality. In any case, Sprint is not the only carrier encountering problems. Last week, WirelessWeek reported that Verizon is suing the small California beach town of Capitola over the resistance to its wireless initiatives. A town ordinance in effect bars the telco from placing wireless infrastructure within 300 feet of a residential structure, park or public facility. It also proscribes other specifics. Verizon isn’t happy:

In court documents, Verizon argued many of the specifications are “insignificant” from a land-use perspective and were impeding a “significant” upgrade for Verizon customers in the area. The carrier further charged the ordinance violates federal laws by interfering in the federal government’s regulation of wireless telecommunications technology.

Quite a fight is brewing in Georgia, as well. Legal NewsLine reports that infrastructure provider Municipal Communications LLC in March sued various Cobb County entities in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, over what it called the "impossible condition" imposed on it when a special land use permit (SLUP) was approved. Specifically, it said that a SLUP granted for placement of a tower on a church property required the tower to be placed 300 feet to the east, at a spot that Municipal does not control.

Another element that may add to the contentious atmosphere is the growth of pervasive Wi-Fi. O'Dwyers lays out what could be a growing conflict in New York City: Terminals are being housed in structures that are more than nine feet tall. The suspicion is that the oversized nature of the booths is simply to carry advertising, which is said to be capable of generating $500 million annually. The New York Landmarks Preservation Committee has objected to the structures.

Slow small approvals, oversized Wi-Fi kiosks in the Big Apple, and a fight over placement of a tower in Georgia are relatively small and highly localized. But the franchise wars always were. The question going forward is how closely the telecommunications companies and municipalities will be able to work together.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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