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Politics & Government

Under Threat of Litigation, City Council Pushes Through Telecom Agreements

A potential revenue stream for the city of Pittsburgh could become tied up in litigation if City Council does not act quickly.

Council on Monday discussed a bill to approve the installation of distributed antenna systems, or DAS, in 19 light poles across the city.

According to Mike Salem, an engineering technician in the Department of Public Works, the antennae are meant to improve cell service in “dead spots,” areas where reception is bad or calls are dropped regularly.

The telecommunications companies Extenet Systems and Crown Castle initially applied for license agreements to install the antennae back in May, and time is running out for City Council to approve the agreements.

“There has been threatened litigation and there are certain provisions of the Federal Telecommunications Act that … typically require a local government to take action on a pending telecommunications license application within a certain amount of time,” said assistant solicitor Kelly Mistick.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris expressed concern over the short time frame within which City Council must act.

“I don’t even think we had a half a week … to discuss this, and neither did the chair of the committee,” Harris said. “So I’m wondering how long ago was this that we knew about it, who knew about it, and why is Council only finding out now?”

Mistick said some of those questions would have to be answered in a private executive session rather than in the public forum of City Council. However, she did say the process had been held up in part because of reorganization of city departments under the Peduto administration. Telecommunications functions were formerly part of City Information Systems, now the Department of Innovation and Performance, but were moved to Public Works earlier this year.

Another wrinkle was due to the fact that city code does not reflect the newer DAS technology.

“Currently … we have an ordinance that addresses cell towers,” said City Council budget director Bill Urbanic. “We do not have an ordinance that addresses distributed antenna systems.”

Marcelle Newman, assistant director of Public Works, said they had initially hoped to amend the city code before approving any of the pending DAS license applications.

“We were going to come to City Council, amend the code, and then proceed with the agreement,” Newman said. “But since they’ve pushed through (potential) litigation, we need to move on it quickly, at least just for these two (agreements.)”

According to current city code, telecommunications companies must pay the city 5 percent of local gross revenue “to use the Rights-of-Way of the City for the construction, operation and maintenance.”

“If you remember back when we approved the Act 47 plan, we wanted to try to find additional revenue sources,” Urbanic sad. “One of the revenue sources that I wanted to look at was right of way. This comes up in the right-of-way as being one of the new technologies.”

However, Urbanic, Mistick and Newman were all unable to quantify how much money the 19 new DAS might bring into the city. Another benefit is that, as part of the pending license agreement, Extenet and Crown Castle will replace the light poles with newer technology, will connect them to underground fiber optic cables, and will maintain the poles for the life of the agreement.

The agreements currently under consideration are only for one year. Typically, telecommunications agreements are for ten years, but the agreements before city council are a stopgap measure until code is updated to reflect the new technology.

While Council gave preliminary approval to the two bills, they did amend them before doing so. Councilwoman Deb Gross sad she was uncomfortable with the fact that the legislation did not spell out the number and locations of the DAS to be installed.

“That’s not good enough for us today, because this is written with broad, wide open language that says you can basically enter in—without our approval—10,000 of them tomorrow,” Gross said.

Gross’s amendment limits Extenet and Crown Castle to the 19 locations as specified in the pending licensing agreement. Council will take a final vote on the bill next week.

Extenet and Crown Castle did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.