Aug. 11, 2017: This story has been updated and corrected.
When the Federal Communications Commission went looking this year for experts to sit on an advisory committee regarding deployment of high-speed internet, Gary Carter thought he would be a logical choice.
Carter works for the city of Santa Monica, California, where he oversees City Net, one of the oldest municipal-run networks in the nation. The network sells high-speed internet to local businesses, and uses the revenue in part to connect low-income neighborhoods.
That experience seemed to be a good match for the proposed Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC), which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai created this year. One of the panel’s stated goals is to streamline city and state rules that might accelerate installation of high-speed internet. But one of the unstated goals, members say, is to make it easier for companies to build networks for the next generation wireless technology, called 5G. The advanced network, which promises faster speeds, will require that millions of small cells and towers be erected nationwide on city- and state-owned public property.
The assignment seemed to call out for participation from city officials like Carter, since municipal officials approve where and what equipment telecommunications companies can place on public rights of way, poles and buildings.
But the FCC didn’t choose Carter — or almost any of the other city or state government officials who applied. Sixty-four city and state officials were nominated for the panel, but the agency initially chose only two: Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, California, and Kelleigh Cole from the Utah Governor’s Office, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through a Freedom of Information Act request. Pai later appointed another city official, Andy Huckaba, a member of the Lenexa, Kansas, city council.
Instead the FCC loaded the 30-member panel with corporate executives, trade groups and free-market scholars. More than three out of four seats on the BDAC are filled by business-friendly representatives from the biggest wireless and cable companies such as AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Sprint Corp., and TDS Telecom. Crown Castle International Corp., the nation’s largest wireless infrastructure company, and Southern Co., the nation’s second-largest utility firm, have representatives on the panel. Also appointed to the panel were broadband experts from conservative think tanks who have been critical of FCC regulations such as the International Center for Law and Economics and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
The same lopsided ratio can be found on the BDAC’s four working groups that will propose changes to telecommunications policies that Pai views as barriers to broadband deployment. The municipal working group, with 24 members, is tasked with creating a model code for cities to follow that would expedite the deployment of cells and poles. The groups consist of BDAC members as well as additional people the FCC appointed, mostly from the telecommunications industry.
The FCC says the makeup of the BDAC and its subgroups represents a diversity of views and those who best understand the issues. But local officials say their exclusion from the committee reflects a not-so-hidden agenda — one pushed by Pai himself with help from his allies in Big Telecom: to create a set of rules that lets the telecom more easily put their equipment in neighborhoods with far less local oversight.
“When I called [the FCC] to check on the status of the BDAC selection process [earlier this year] and identified myself as an employee from the City of Santa Monica, the gentleman on the phone laughed hysterically,” Carter said. “At first I didn’t get the joke. When I saw the appointees for the municipal working group — only three out of 24 positions were from local government — I got the joke.”
The FCC had no comment other than to note they were made aware of the incident. (Update, Aug. 11, 2017, 11:45 a.m.: The FCC says they were made aware of the incident by the Center.) But the interaction underscores what Liccardo now faces as one of the only city representatives on the committee.
“It’s not lost on us that among the 30-odd members of the BDAC, only two represent local government,” Liccardo said. “We’ll see where things go in the weeks ahead, but it’s fair to say the footprints are in the snow.”