Who’s building our 5G? In new franchise agreements, NYC leads the way on worker safety and corporate transparency

Across the country, telecom providers are demanding that cities give them access to public infrastructure for the installation of “small cells,” telecommunications equipment that can expand 4G or 5G service. Unfortunately for cities, in 2018 the FCC issued aggressive rules that severely limit local power and pressure cities into unfair terms with providers. But cities are fighting back: dozens of cities are suing the FCC, and progressive localities like New York City are leading the way forward, with innovative proposals that demand fair 5G buildout. 

As networks expand, one major issue is low-road subcontracting. Across the country, subcontractors laying fiber and expanding networks have caused fatal gas explosions and costly utility hits, endangering workers and the public. New York City has taken a first step in addressing this problem. Last week, New York City finalized its franchise agreements with providers setting the lease terms for wireless companies looking to install equipment on public property. For the first time, the City included worker safety transparency requirements that require companies to provide annual reports on subcontracting and safety policies. Companies will need to report information on subcontractors to the city, including:

  • What company is actually doing the work in the right-of-way, and the subcontracting relationship between the provider and the workers; 

  • A description of safety training requirements and safety policies; 

  • The number of workers involved, the job titles doing the work, and the required certifications and licenses; 

  • Evidence that all companies in the subcontracting chain are properly licensed for the work to be conducted. 

Providers often subcontract telecommunications excavation work to out-of-state companies that aren’t union, instead of using locally-based, directly-employed workers. This is sensitive work, happening in public thoroughfares across the country. Broadband infrastructure construction is often subcontracted repeatedly -- a provider subcontracts to a company, that subcontracts to another company, that subcontracts to another company. The actual company doing the work in our streets often isn’t even listed on the permit, or licensed to do work in the state. 

When things go wrong, the consequences can be fatal. In January 2012, a company doing work for Verizon struck a natural gas main while installing fiber optic cable in West Haverstraw, New York. The explosion destroyed a townhouse and seriously injured four people, including two firefighters and two utility workers. In April 2019, a company doing work for Crown Castle hit a gas line in North Carolina and caused an explosion that killed two people, injured another twenty-five, and destroyed a building including two businesses. 

“CWA’s research has uncovered numerous instances of telecom subcontractors causing fatal gas explosions and utility hits that negatively impact public infrastructure and resources and require public employee staff time to investigate and resolve,” said Robert Master, Assistant to the Vice President of the Communications Workers of America District 1. “New York City’s new franchise agreements will enhance transparency and accountability, and serve as part of the foundation of the City of New York’s telecommunications infrastructure for the next decade. We hope New York City’s leadership on this will be replicated by other municipalities and localities across the nation.” 

Learn more at www.Fair5G.org and CWA Recommendations for Small Cell Deployment