WASHINGTON-House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) voiced strong support last week for emergency wireless services, but concerns over funding and privacy could hurt legislation expected to be introduced shortly that would convert federal property antenna siting fees into state and local grants for enhanced 911 system upgrades.
“We need to establish and maintain a comprehensive wireless end-to-end communications system, one that links members of the public, emergency service providers, emergency service dispatch operators, public safety officials and trauma care facilities,” said Tauzin at last Tuesday’s hearing.
At the same time, Tauzin said he does not intend to push legislation to pre-empt local antenna siting regulation.
Instead, the Louisiana lawmaker said he will use his chair as a bully pulpit to encourage an end to the scores of siting moratoria stifling the buildout of new personal communications services systems and expansion of cellular telephone networks.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is expected to introduce a companion E911/federal property siting bill soon.
“Siting delayed is safety denied,” said Thomas Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association.
Indeed, more than 83,000 wireless calls go to 911 and other emergency numbers every day-which is part of the problem. There are different emergency numbers around the country. That causes confusion. The wireless industry wants 911 as the universal emergency telephone number.
Most of the 55 million mobile phone users buy the communicators for safety. Yet millions of citizens still do not have access to any 911 service.
In some cases, wireless service is unavailable because of antenna siting moratoria due to concerns over health, aesthetics and property devaluation. In other cases, carriers decide for business reasons not to construct antennas in sparsely populated areas with limited traffic and, thus, little revenue draw. And some wireless carriers simply do not pass through 911 calls for competitive reasons.
Wheeler was joined at the hearing by the ComCARE Alliance, a broad-based public safety advocacy group organized by CTIA.
Despite compelling testimony by Wheeler, who produced internal National Park Service memos that discouraged congressionally-mandated antenna siting on federal land, the prospects of getting a bill through Congress this year appear dim.
The wireless industry, among other things, is fighting the clock. There are a limited number of legislative days left in the second session of the 105th Congress, which adjourns in early October for midterm elections.
That means the Tauzin-McCain E911/federal siting initiative has to compete with a host of other bills with higher priority, not to mention appropriations bills to fund the federal government in fiscal 1999.
Second, the policy objectives of the bill do not appear to be on solid ground.
The wireless industry and the General Services Administration-the government’s leasing agent-have vastly different projections of revenue from federal property siting fees.
Wheeler said $1.5 billion could be raised during the next five years.
In stark contrast, David Bibb, deputy associate administrator of GSA, said that only about $1.5 million a year can be expected from fees from the placement of antennas on federal land.
If Bibb is correct that CTIA is grossly overstating future receipts expected from federal land siting fees, legislation contemplated by Tauzin and McCain could backfire badly and become an unfunded E911 wireless mandate for cities and states.
If Wheeler is right, it still does not solve the problem of delays in siting antennas on federal land.
Bibb said federal agencies should be able to retain antenna siting fees to cover processing and administrative costs at a minimum and that, without an economic incentive, they cannot give the issue a high priority given competing demands on their resources.
Today, most federal land siting fees paid by wireless carriers are deposited into the U.S. treasury.
Thus, if federal agencies are denied siting fees and the accompanying economic incentive to process siting applications in a timely and appropriate fashion, legislation would change little in the dynamics between wireless carriers and federal agencies.
As such, the Tauzin-McCain initiative could fail to accomplish its primary objectives: to improve antenna siting on federal land and, in turn, generate the dollars the wireless industry is promising to cities and states.
Is legislation even needed? Is the problem of siting antennas on federal property as bad as the industry claims?
Denis Galvin, deputy director of the National Park Service, stated in written testimony that only five parks had received a combination of 12 written applications and 16 parks had gotten 50 phone calls or other inquiries since the enactment of the 1996 telecom act.
GSA’s Bibb said that between June 1997 and December 1997 federal agencies reported getting 340 antenna siting requests. Of those, Bibb said 10 requests, or nearly 3 percent, were denied.
Omaha Mayor Hal Daub said wireless carriers have not always been cooperative in attempts to improve 911 emergency service.
Then there is the touchy political matter of an authorizing committee-Commerce-making decisions about taxpayer dollars that congressional appropriators normally oversee.
Even though an E911/federal land siting bill could be introduced as early as this week, Tauzin has yet to get the blessing of House appropriators.
“He has not talked to me about that,” said Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary. “I’d have to know more about it.”
Indeed, a bill drafted last year by Tauzin to fund digital wiretap upgrades with federal property antenna siting fees failed in part because of the same funding mechanism that he wants to use to subsidize 911 upgrades.
Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and others, while supportive of Tauzin, expressed fear that wireless automatic notification systems trigger by car accidents might compromise privacy. “We don’t want people to be tracked,” said Markey.