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Grand Jury Says County Lacks Leadership in Telecom

A new report says some parts of the region are in the digital dark, without in-home access to high-speed Internet, and that some state and federal funding opportunities have been missed.

A new report by the Marin County Civil Grand Jury says Marin is lacking informed leadership when it comes to telecommunications, which has left some parts of the county in the digital dark, without in-home access to high-speed Internet.

“Marin has been short-changed,” says the report, released this week. The grand jury says Marin officials missed opportunities to apply for federal and state funds that could have helped provide Internet access to underserved communities.

Even county residents with Internet access aren’t getting “the best value,” the report says. County leaders, it says, have failed to join forces to negotiate with telecommunications companies over cost and coverage.

“Aggregation strengthens the ability to negotiate,” the report states.

To address what the grand jury sees as deficiencies, it recommends the creation of a citizens advisory committee to weigh in on telecommunications policy issues. The committee should include members with industry expertise, the report says.

“Marin County needs competent and effective guidance,” the report says.

Better leadership could also help the county’s municipalities create solid regulations ahead of the anticipated rollout of the fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G, the grand jury says. Many cities and towns have enacted policies on their own, but have missed out on the opportunity to work together, it contends.

“There is no coordinated strategy for investigation of the use, benefits, detriments or installation of this technology,” the report says.

On June 12, the county released a draft 5G ordinance laying out requirements for application and installation procedures, agency location preferences and design standards; public notification procedures; and an appeals process.

The report calls for disbanding the Marin Telecommunications Agency, which was formed in 1998 to represent the county and its cities and towns. The agency was initially intended to be “the key policy-making and coordinating body related to telecommunications matters in Marin,” according to its website. But the grand jury says it hasn’t upheld that function.

The agency’s focus shifted in 2006, the report says, when California enacted the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act. The act requires cable providers to pay local governments a 5 percent fee on cable service revenue for allowing cable franchisees access to the public right of way. It also requires a 1 percent fee to fund public access broadcasting.

Jean Bonander, the agency’s executive officer, said much of the staff’s time is spent collecting and dispersing those fees. The agency “keeps an eye” on telecommunications policy issues, she said, but that’s “not the primary role” of the agency.

“It has shifted,” Bonander said.

The grand jury asserts that the agency, which has a $200,000 annual budget, may soon no longer be needed. Many of its existing functions, it says, could be performed by another agency, the Marin General Services Authority. And over time, franchise fee revenue is shrinking.

Because the agency “serves no strategic or advisory function to the county,” the recommended citizens committee should take on that role, the report says.

“Even these limited functions of the (Marin Telecommunications Agency) are unlikely to survive into the future because the continued payment of these fees by the cable companies is unlikely to last,” the report says. “With the availability of broadband streaming services, consumers are now ‘cutting the cord,’ so the payment of franchise fees is declining and is likely to eventually cease altogether.”

Cable companies are also challenging their obligations to pay franchise fees, which could further diminish that income stream and the agency’s role.

Bonander said she couldn’t comment on the grand jury’s recommendation because she hadn’t yet discussed it with the agency’s directors.

©2019 The Marin Independent Journal. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.