LETTER: Resident concerned about City of Burien’s dealings with Verizon

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a Letter to the Editor, written by a Reader. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The B-Town Blog nor its staff:]


I rose in the October 23rd study session to ask that the council carefully consider the terms of Ordinance 679. This letter will be a bit long as I try to express both policy implications and high level technical issues that exceed the 2 minute public comment limit.

I, like the council, am not intimate with the technical details of this application and rely on the opinions of experts to inform my understanding. I do arrive with some relevant knowledge, a degree in electrical engineering, along with work experience in communications and antenna projects (pre 2004). Also, I recognize there are always motivations that may not align with the public interest that the council is charged to protect. One thing I have observed in my life is; who is paying for a service is critical in influencing motivations for the service provider. In this case, I am pleased the city gets the advice of an expert such as Ms. Zana, paid for by the easement applicant (Verizon/Glotel). This is not unlike the arrangement when buying a home where the real estate agent is legally bound to represent the interests of both the buyer and the seller. However, as the compensation typically comes from the seller, agents have an economic interest that works in tension with their legal obligation. After my comments, and observing the responses both from Ms. Zara and a community member / employee of Verizon who was invited to add her continued input (beyond the two minutes allowed other community members), I was left with the impression that the council was receiving selected information from the applicant intended to bolster the Verizon preferred solution (SCF) over options (such as Distributed Antenna Systems – DAS) that might be better public policy options, especially if Verizon intends to concentrate deployment in the downtown core. Full disclosure, I live in one of the many steep slope neighborhoods of Burien that have spotty reception due to terrain shielding of the larger cell towers that cover most of Burien. As a result, I personally may benefit from enhanced cell coverage. However, if the intent is to increase data delivery capacity in the core (as indicated by testimony from the Verizon employee and Ms. Zara), this proposal does little to address spotty coverage in under served areas.

To summarize some policy considerations that may help the council to assess if this application is in the best public interest for the city of Burien:

  1. Verizon is required to provide “as built” maps of their new “small Cell Facility (SCF)” after the easement is provided, but there was no map included in the Council packet so that we could assess the possible benefits or impacts to various parts of our city. In response to a council request, Ms. Zara agreed to provide the council with the 17 proposed locations. It was made clear that although the easement would allow Verizon to install SCFs anywhere in the city that land use planning permits, there is no requirement in the easement to provide equitable access for all areas of the city. Does this promote good public policy?
  2. Typically SCFs are dedicated to a single provider. Ms. Zara or the Verizon employee confirmed that this application was for Verizon only use. Other providers (AT&T, for example) would have to install separate facilities if they chose to use the SCF solution. The city was advised that they could expect to be approached by other carriers for easements to install SCFs. Other municipalities have chosen to require Distributed Antenna Systems that are typically the same size, or smaller, than SCFs in their on pole installations and are open to ALL wireless providers, reducing the number of antennae and allowing for a single assessment of intensity of the RF radiation in the vicinity of the facility. Note that the “head” or data accumulator equipment would be larger for a DAS than a single SCF. However, that equipment is typically off pole, preferably in an underground vault. A possible policy consideration here is an area such as the Town Square Spray Park. It might easily be an area where multiple providers would want to site SCFs so caregivers can stream games or movies while they are supervising children in the park. As the experts testified, to envision antenna coverage (and therefore RF radiation strength and density) imagine antenna coverage as a flashlight beam, a bright circle with diminishing light intensity as you move out from the center. Now think about multiple flashlights, all aimed at the same point. Much brighter, but still no one flashlight that would be strong enough to harm your eyesight. Since each installation will be approved through separate land use planning at the time of their application, will the city planners have the guidance, authorization, and expertise to assess the public health (and other public) impacts of cumulative installations? Will there be a limit on the concentration of SCFs from various providers in a given area? If so, will there be a process for assessing which provider is best suited to meet established public policy with their installation? A DAS policy would be inconvenient for Verizon. Your experts admitted that a DAS would not be optimized for the Verizon business plan and operations. As a council, your charge is not to provide large corporations with what they desire, rather it is to protect the public interest. A DAS requires a lead organization that will coordinate requirements from all users and provide a design that supports the requirements of the most demanding provider, as well as the least. This means that some providers will have an installation that exceeds their requirements and may cost them a bit more. It also means the fiber service to the data accumulators will be need to be sized for the max loads of multiple companies, not just Verizon. So this would impact the business decisions for Verizon’s separate fiber backbone easement. Lastly, this easement application reminds me of the early days of wireless service. There were “gold rushes” as companies tried to be the first to apply for and “lock up” spectrum and coverage areas. The ability of local governments to assess the impacts to their communities was inadequate to power of the profit motive driving the then new wireless companies. Eventually we ended up with the system we have now that favors a few large companies providing service concentrated on the most profitable locations, with little regard to underserved populations.
  3. While the city may not under current law charge a franchise fee for use of OUR public easements, was there any consideration of other public benefits that might required of Verizon for this easement? For example, an extended program to provide low income / retired residents with lower cost access to Verizon services? Or if the fiber backbone is concentrated in downtown, what about requiring the installation of a separate, dedicated fiber cable to provide a convenient stub out so that a small local business could provide fiber connected (not wireless) data services to other small businesses in the downtown? While state law forbids municipalities from operating not for profit telecommunications or cable systems, I know of no prohibition that municipalities insist on access for small or startup businesses when a national company requests public space for private gain.
  4. Remedies, please examine Section 21.3 of the agreement to assure that the remedies are strong enough to make Verizon respond positively if they violate the easement terms. Currently a fine of $250 per day seems inadequate to incentivize Verizon to act in the best interests of the residents of Burien. Even forfeiture of the easement bond is only $50,000, again, is that sufficient motivation to influence Verizon’s business policy in favor of the public interest? Just because a company has no prior judgements for choosing business interest over public interest, does not mean we should not have robust remedies in the event that changes.

Discussion of Ordinance No. 679 granting to Verizon a franchise for ten years to construct small cell telecommunications infrastructure in Burien rights-of-way.

Section 21 Remedies to Enforce Compliance

“.. If the breach is not cured within the specified time, or Franchisee does not comply with the specified conditions, the City may, at its discretion, (1) revoke this Franchise with in accordance with Section 20, or (2) claim damages of Two Hundred Fifty Dollars ($250.00) per day against the Franchisee or the Franchise Bond set forth in Section 19.2 until the violation is cured,…”

“Section 19.2 Franchise Bond. Franchisee shall provide City with a bond in the amount of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00)”

Thank You
Douglas Sykes

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