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updated: 5/16/2017 4:46 PM

Kane County looks to rent utility pole space to cellphone companies

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The answer to "Can you hear me now?" when Kane County residents speak on their cellphones may soon depend on how much money phone service providers are willing to pay to the division of transportation.

A county board committee agreed Tuesday to start renting space on county-owned utility poles to AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. The move would allow the companies to boost their signals via amplification devices on the poles.

In trade, the county would receive a fee that would both provide a new source of non-property tax income and, perhaps, personal vindication for county board Chairman Chris Lauzen.

Lauzen first pitched the idea of renting utility pole space during his re-election campaign last year. But the plan appeared derailed when the state's attorney's office discovered Lauzen illegally hired an outside law firm to pursue the idea himself. Lauzen then handed off the plan to the county board, suffering a political black eye.

Tuesday's decision to bring the cellphone amplification plan to a vote by the full county board revisits that battle between Lauzen and the state's attorney's office.

At the time, Lauzen said he hired the firm because he didn't trust a 2014 ruling he received from the state's attorney's office about the legality of renting out the utility poles. The state's attorney's office has denied issuing any ruling on the plan, citing Lauzen's own outside law firm's opinion that the 2014 letter addressed a matter "materially different" from cellphone amplification.

On Tuesday, Lauzen referenced the legal disagreement in encouraging the county board to press forward with a sense of urgency.

"A couple months ago there was thought, perhaps, that this was not legal," Lauzen said. "Now, it's very good to be moving in this direction. Be aware of the law but also how you maximize your constituents' interests in this. We want to make sure we are receiving as much (revenue) as we can. The pricing question, it's huge."

For now, the price is $200 per utility pole, per month for each amplification device. Kane County Deputy Director of Transportation Tom Rickert said the highest fee he's seen is $350 per month. But the ultimate profit depends on the demand by cellphone companies for the utility pole space.

"There's not a lot of this occurring yet," Rickert said. "I can see over the next year about a half a dozen to a dozen requests. It's primarily in the urban areas, like downtown municipal areas, where the strongest need is now."

That reality could create a possible competition between the county and municipalities who also control utility poles for the new cellphone amplification money. There's also a looming legislative hurdle.

State lawmakers have SB1451 on the table. The bill would block any unit of local government from regulating or charging any fee to cellphone companies looking to mount amplification devices on utility poles or support structures.

If approved, the legislation would undercut the county's pending new revenue source.

Lauzen and members of the county board's transportation committee emphasized speed in adopting the new fee so as to take advantage of any grandfathering that may be allowed under the pending legislation.

The full county board will vote on the fee early next month.

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