Franchises and big boxes

AT&T is in fights with several communities over it's "U-verse" data service. It used to be called "Project Lightspeed," but the company dropped that name, probably when people noticed that the system actually delivered services over copper (speeded up DSL).

Some communities are fighting the firm over franchise fees. AT&T is offering a triple play (voice, video, and data) set of services, but wants to classify the new system as a "data" service rather than the two traditional classifications: telecommunications (used for telephone providers) or cable (used for TV services). The distinction is an important one, both for communities and for the companies that offer the services. Cable services have typically been subject to franchise fees, while data services are unregulated. AT&T wants to use the data classification to avoid franchise fees.

Some communities have come to rely too heavily on franchise fees, and want every new service provider to pay them. I have said for a long time that communities would be better off letting go of the forty year old tax system (that's all it is, really, a tax) and encourage competition for service in the community. Prices would go down, and everyone that buys telecom services would benefit. I think it is always a bad idea when you make certain businesses tax collectors, but not others.

The broader issue for franchise fees is that as the kinds of services we want extend beyond triple play, how do you tax them services and businesses, many of which have no physical presence in the community. The answer is that you can't, so do you really want to tax only those companies that actually make physical investments in infrastructure? The answer, again, is "No."

There are two alternatives to franchise fees. One is to charge companies that want to use public right of way a right of way fee. You charge the same fee to every firm that places cables and equipment in right of way. This is fair because every firm is treated the same way, regardless of the service they offer, and it is fair because there is a real cost to the community to manage public right of way. But it should not be used as a general fund revenue enhancement (tax) unless you want to inhibit competition and unless you like paying high prices for telecom services.

The second alternative to franchise fees (and right of way fees) is for the community to build its own digital road system and to let private companies use that road system to sell services. Companies that do use it will pay the community a portion of revenue to cover the cost of building and maintaining it. This is the best approach, in my opinion, because it preserves public right of way (a scarce resource) and these Open Service Provider Networks (OSPNs) lower the cost of telecom services in the community, saving both tax dollars and business dollars. More money is freed up for other uses across the entire community.

AT&T, in addition to the franchise fee fight, is also arguing with communities over right of way issues. The squabbles highlight why it is so important for communities to have a thoughtful and even-handed right of way policy before companies like AT&T show up with the big new equipment boxes that they want to scatter all over town. I identified this as a problem more than six years ago. I call these boxes NSAPs, or Neighborhood Service Access Points. These streetside cabinets house the electronics needed to deliver telecom services to homes and businesses.

AT&T does not want to tell communities where they intend to put the boxes (for fear competitors will find out), and they often appropriate right of way or even part of someone's yard for the boxes. A pro-active right of way policy that anticipates these kind of uses will help a community avoid lawsuits.

For more information on these NSAP boxes, take a look at this one, to see the ugly side of not planning for these. One advantage of a community system is that you minimize the number of NSAPs needed. And this long article should be required reading for every town and county planner and every elected official.

How about your community? Is there a recently revised right of way policy in place that reflects the new realities of an unregulated telecommunications marketplace? What about NSAPs? Do you have a policy that requires all new subdivisions to plan for the placement of these units and that requires right of way set asides for them in locations that minimize their landscape impact? What about franchise fees? Have you developed a new approach to right of way management that reflects current and future telecom trends, rather than clinging to a forty year old tax model?