Bowling Green, KY. (September 20, 2018) – Just ten years after the introduction of the iPhone, we have grown accustomed to, and even dependent upon, constant cellular connectivity. Most of us don’t think about the infrastructure needed to make this 24/7 connectivity possible, however, a robust network of towers and other vertical assets keep America connected every hour of every day.
In the past 25 years, views of these cellular towers on the horizon have just become part of our landscape as providers have worked to maintain and grow serviceable territories. There is no doubt that we are going to continue to see new towers built, but there is a new kind of wireless infrastructure being introduced.
A new technology called “small cells” is being deployed, and in the coming years, the number of small cell installations will grow exponentially greater than their giant brothers in the sky.
From Towering to Tiny
The towers that we are used to seeing today are tall, bulky structures that take up considerable space on the ground and can usually be seen for miles in the distance. Small cells, however, are designed to be small and unobtrusive and will be deployed in great numbers in densely populated locations.
The small cell may be deployed on existing infrastructure, such as power and light poles, and even on independently standing poles or structures. They can be mounted on buildings, signs, and any number of other locations. Some systems may require additional hardware that will be located on or below the ground, dependent upon the manufacturer, location, availability of space, etc.
5G deployments will require the use of small cells in order to provide the coveted four bars of service that we all desire. 5G uses a much higher frequency spectrum than our current cellular networks, which allows it to provide much greater capacity but prohibits it from traveling very far. To solve this challenge, providers must deploy many small cells to cover the same area that would be covered by one larger macro tower.
Our cities, villages, and towns are often already crowded with utility and telecom infrastructure, and for many officials, adding more to the equation seems unthinkable. Add to this the fact that multiple providers may want to offer service in a community, thus multiplying the number of small cells. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of tension building as 5G and small cell deployments start to gain steam. Consumers want and demand greater levels of service from providers, providers are working to find solutions to meet the demand, and governments are working to serve their communities while being good stewards of the resources afforded to them through their citizens.
In addition to local tensions, there is an understood urgency at the federal level for the United States to deploy, and even lead, the world in 5G services. Considering the local, state, and federal issues at play, the deployment of 5G technologies through small cells has become a very complicated issue.
Developing Policy to Encourage Investment
Federal policy around small cell deployment is active, and on September 4, 2018, Commissioner Brendan Carr spoke before the Indiana State House on the very issue of small cells and announced a Report and Order before the FCC that he proposed would ease the deployment of 5G technologies across the country.
In his speech, Commissioner Carr stated that the regulations currently governing broadband deployment were written when the technology required building large towers to beam cell signals over wide areas. As a result, municipalities established extensive permitting processes, charging high fees and undergoing lengthy reviews.
The deployment of new 5G technologies, however, will be in the form of small cells, and Carr stated that putting these new small cells up will require providers to invest approximately $275 billion in communities. To encourage investment, he stated that regulations should be updated accordingly.
As a result, at the FCC Open Meeting on September 26, 2018, the Commission will vote on a Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order titled “Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment.” The Order represents a national strategy to encourage timely buildout of small cells by reducing regulations and costs that delay deployment of new technologies.
In summary, the Order includes the following key actions:
- Limits state and local governments to charging fees that are no greater than a reasonable cost for processing applications and for managing deployments in the rights-of-way.
- Identifies specific fee levels for small wireless facility deployments.
- Provides guidance on certain state and local non-fee requirements, including aesthetic and undergrounding requirements.
- Establishes two new shot clocks for small wireless facilities:
- 60 days for collocation on pre-existing structures
- 90 days for new builds
- Makes clear that all state and local government authorizations necessary for the deployment of personal wireless service infrastructure are subject to shot clocks.
While providers may find it easier to deploy technologies if the Order is passed, many municipalities are concerned that the ruling will limit their freedom to charge fees and regulate small cell deployment reviews according to the best interest of their communities.
The National League of Cities (NLC) has recently released a report that goes into great detail to help municipalities understand small cells and to ensure that local officials are aware of what to expect in the very near future. NLC and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) also released a model code for municipalities that they believe helps address the various complexities and instruments that municipalities experience when navigating telecommunications deployment in their communities. This NLC/NATOA model code was produced in response to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) recently released model code.
As for the coming months and years, it is, for now, unclear what small cell deployments will look like across the country, but one thing is certain: There is sure to be a cost paid by all to ensure that the next wave of technology is deployed in a timely and effective manner. As consumers, we may have to wait patiently while providers, local, state, and federal government entities work out how to deploy our next step in technology.
About the Authors: Lindsay Conrad monitors all current and forecasted federal and state broadband public policy legislation and initiatives. In this role, she develops recommendations on the strategic direction and development of Connected Nation policy studies and messaging to stakeholders while supporting and guiding Connected Nation’s broadband planning, research, and policy agendas.
Wes Kerr is the Director of Community Solutions for Connected Nation. Wes helps ensure the implementation of Technology Action Plans developed for communities through Connected Nation’s Connected Community Engagement Program (Connectedsm) and works closely with clients and stakeholders to provide solutions that will help them meet their technology goals.
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