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EDITORIAL: Clark County officials should be eager to settle 5G dispute

Las Vegas and Clark County officials find themselves at the center of a dispute involving emerging technology. The issue is 5G. The controversy involves money.

The promise of fifth-generation wireless technology is a future of device connectivity that, in theory, can make life “easier, safer and healthier,” according to Wired.com. Some experts warn that if U.S. telecom companies don’t rapidly build such a network — which will feature must faster speeds — the nation risks being at the mercy of China’s nascent tech industry.

To that end, U.S. carriers are competing to develop 5G networks throughout the country. Unlike 4G with its bulky towers, the new technology is less obtrusive and involves the installation of smaller cells. But while 4G towers send signals across long distances, the 5G devices have a more limited range. Thus, there must be many more of them, and they must be much closer together.

“This means that cities that want faster connectivity must grapple with more frequent use of their utility poles and other infrastructure and more construction on roads where companies want to build fiber optic cables,” Governing.com reported in September.

Politicians in many areas — including Southern Nevada — have responded by setting fees that wireless carriers must pay for the use of public infrastructure necessary to implement 5G. The carriers, however, argue that these fees are often exorbitant and will slow technological development.

“It kind of goes back to who’s really our partner,” said Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick, “and who’s really here as a cash cow, right?”

Of course that works both ways. On the one hand, many municipal officials argue that giant telecoms such as Verizon will profit greatly from the use of public equipment and taxpayers deserve compensation. On the other hand, industry executives claim that some local governments are trying to shake them down in order to pad budgets.

Last year, Clark County approved fees ranging from $700 to $3,960 per year for each 5G cell. Other jurisdictions have set similar charges, but they vary wildly from place to place. Rochester, N.Y., for example, put the number at $1,500. San Jose charges between $750 and $2,500. The city of Las Vegas settled on $1,372.

The problem: The fees imposed by Clark County and others are in violation of a 2018 FCC order that limits the costs to carriers to $270 per site. The commission imposed the ceiling in order to ease local regulations that could slow the development of a nationwide 5G network. “To be sure, there are some local governments that don’t like this order,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the time. “They would like to continue extracting as much money as possible in fees from the private sector and forcing companies to navigate a maze of regulatory hurdles in order to deploy wireless infrastructure.”

Indeed, Clark County and dozens of other municipal government have challenged the FCC’s edict, and the matter is pending at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The municipalities have a reasonable point about the importance of local oversight and the dangers of federal overreach. But even if they prevail in court, the goal should be to negotiate amicable deals with the telecom companies that reflect the actual costs to local taxpayers and recognize the importance of building out the network without unnecessary delays. That seems to be Clark County’s approach. A spokesman for AT&T in Southern Nevada noted, “In the spirit of cooperation, (the county) has been very much available to have those conversations with us.”

That’s wise. It’s in nobody’s best interest — not the county, the city, the telecoms or consumers and taxpayers — to create hostile relationships that slow the deployment of 5G in Southern Nevada and potentially hinder a promising means of economic development and diversification. Ms. Kirkpatrick said she hopes to have the fee dispute settled by March. Let’s hope her crystal ball is accurate.

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