The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council on Wednesday set a $250 annual rate for small cell equipment placed in city-parish rights of way.
The gear provides signals to limited, targeted areas to boost signals where there is dense demand. City-parish staff have estimated that companies like AT&T — which lack the space to build new towers — may need to install hundreds of small cell sites to provide or improve service.
On Wednesday, the Metro Council approved the rate for such gear with the sole but vigorous opposition of Matt Watson.
"I don't like the $250-a-year. I think we're giving away the house," Watson said, noting other cities that charge higher rates.
A fight is brewing over how much companies should pay to use public property in Baton Rouge …
Ordinance co-sponsor Buddy Amoroso disagreed. Cities like Houston were able to charge a couple thousand dollars in the past because telecommunication companies were looking to install more infrastructure to increase their capacity in the lead-up to this year's Super Bowl, he said. And places like Dallas can command higher rates because they're several times the size of Baton Rouge, he contended.
Those Texas municipalities no longer charge those rates since the Texas Legislature a few months ago passed a law setting statewide annual rates around $250, which Dallas estimated cost the state's municipalities approximately $800 million in annual revenue. Baton Rouge's ordinance is based on the Texas state model.
The $250 annual rate is great for AT&T, but for the city and public it's an "absolute abomination … the pricing is way off," said Curtis Heroman, a technology professional and the only person to speak on the issue during its public hearing. He compared Baton Rouge's ordinance — written at AT&T's request — to letting his 6-year-old choose how much dessert she should be allowed to have.
But if the city-parish doesn't offer a competitive rate, companies may seek to place their equipment on private property, starving Baton Rouge of a potential revenue stream, said ordinance co-sponsor LaMont Cole.
And Baton Rouge needs to increase its signal capacity if wants to attract events like concerts and to provide adequate coverage during sporting events, he said.
"Small cell puts us on the track to do that," Cole said.
In addition to the annual fee, companies must pay a one-time $1,000 fee for each device installed in a public right of way.
Councilman Dwight Hudson commended Cole and Amoroso on the deal. It's wrong to look at the public right of way as a cash cow, Hudson said, adding that higher costs to telecommunication companies could be passed on to consumers, meaning higher bills for Baton Rouge residents.
While Watson objected to the rate — and the lack of a built-in fee increase to keep pace with inflation — he also raised other issues. For one, the ordinance presented Wednesday does not address liability concerns should the equipment injure someone or damage property.
Upon questioning by Watson and Councilwoman Chauna Banks, city-parish staff said their insurance expert and finance department had not been asked to review the ordinance, and the information services department does not have staff with specific expertise regarding the equipment.
However, none of those arguments swayed the rest of the council. Members said they are eager to get moving on the installation of equipment to provide service to businesses and residents — both their existing phones, smart watches and other internet-connected gear as well as the technology of the future, such as driverless cars.
"We're ready to get started in East Baton Rouge Parish," said David Aubrey, AT&T Louisiana's director of external affairs.