Telecommunications Decision Looms





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Under the threat of being sued, the Berkeley City Council will meet tonight to discuss whether to block new telecommunications facilities from moving into the city.

Council members will meet with the city attorney to review the "threat of exposure to litigation" from several telecommunications companies.

Although the council debated imposing a moratorium on the issuance of permits to these companies, the businesses have retaliated, saying that such action would violate state law.

Now, city officials must decide what course of action to take.

"I pulled the item in July because I had legal questions about it, such as how far the city could go with such a moratorium," said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

One reason why the city proposed the restrictions on the telecommunications companies is that they had to tear up local streets to install their cables, presenting health and safety concerns, Worthington said. In order to establish a telecommunications system, fiber-optic rings must be installed underground.

This also makes the street look bad, city officials said. While streets are dug up for the cables, "pedestals," metal boxes containing wiring, are also erected throughout residential and business streets. These can range in size from two feet to the size of a residential parking garage.

"The concern is where people put their pedestals," Worthington said. "If they put bigger and bigger pedestals in neighborhoods, views are blocked. Above-ground pedestals also affect traffic."

There are real financial costs to the city for allowing companies to do underground work, Worthington added.

"If (a telecommunications company) is going to tear up the street, it shortens the life of the street, which means that we have to repave the whole thing," he said.

Worthington added that the moratorium will become a 'moot question' once the city decides how much the installations cost and establishes a fee structure to charge companies.

"We don't want to stop fiber-optic projects," he said. "I want make sure that, while we make these companies pay a fair share of the cost of the impact of their work, I don't want to make Berkeley technologically inferior."

According to City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque, the city's Telecommunications Task Force made a recommendation at the last council meeting in July to restrict the issuance of any permits until the city can develop a "regulatory scheme" to address the different concerns.

Until this plan is cemented, the ability of companies to install networks is going to be delayed, Albuquerque said, although a moratorium would prevent companies from doing any work altogether.

At the meeting tomorrow, Albuquerque will give council members "confidential advice" about what their risks are if they decide in favor of the moratorium.

There are several telecommunication companies, including Pac Bell, that have networks in Berkeley, Albuquerque said. Although they recognize the complaints associated with new telecommunications facilities, they also assert that they are protected under the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 and that federal law preempts the city from imposing local regulations, except to a very limited extent.

Cecilia Estolana, who represents Metromedia Fiber Network Systems, one of the companies that would be affected, declined to comment.

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