Hope for US city networks as FCC pushes small cell regulatory reform
The relationship between city authorities and wireless operators has often been a sticking point when trying to get good connectivity to every citizen. In theory, both parties want ubiquitous, reliable access. In practice, they have often differed over how to go about it. As the FCC launches a set of proposals to ease small cell deployment in US cities and towns, there will be heated debate between the two sides – but there are also real signs that the operators and the municipalities are coming together.
The FCC is proposing several changes, which could make a real difference to the cost and time to deploy small cells in the US. They are exactly the kind of steps towards a simplified, consistent process which Small Cell Forum is actively advocating with regulators in the US and round the world.
The US telecoms regulator has approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), which proposes ways to remove “regulatory impediments” that can slow roll-out of small cells at state and local levels. The aim is to arrive at a more streamlined and unified process nationwide, with less ability for municipalities to make their own idiosyncratic rules. These changes (see below for details) effectively set a firm time limit for approving a small cell installation.
They also aim to improve the rules and processes related to zoning, site regulations and permits, which are often cited as key obstacles to small cell roll-out in outdoor urban settings where new capacity is most needed. The procedure will address existing rules at local, state and federal level, as well as the FCC’s regulations on historic preservation and environmental review.
More controversially, the FCC wants the federal government to be able to force local and state authorities to approve applications for new towers, small cells and DAS sites, as well as amendments to existing structures. And it even questions whether cities should be forced to make provision for wireless sites, if their utilities are run underground, not on poles.
This is sure to attract opposition during the consulting phase. However, the atmosphere is a far cry from that of a decade ago, when operators and cities took to the law courts over municipal Wi-Fi plans.
Now, the objectives are far more harmonized, and the main criticism from city authorities so far has been that the FCC is being unnecessarily heavy-handed – the changes are happening without the need for new rules. Gary Resnick, a Florida mayor who chaired the FCC’s Intergovernmental Advisory Committee, told RCRWireless that 15 states and thousands of localities are “adopting laws and policies by working with the industry to allow these technologies to use the public rights of way in a way that balances important governmental interests … The FCC should afford an opportunity for this to continue rather than look to pre-empt state and local laws.”
All stakeholders want better wireless services, and they know the processes need to be simplified. “I have yet to come across a single community that wants to be left behind or overlooked as we embark on this new frontier,” said one of the FCC commissioners, Mignon Clyburn, during the debate over the NPRM. “Approving applications to site antennas and other infrastructure are difficult challenges for local governments … Many are overwhelmed.”
Small Cell Forum, through its extensive work with regulators, municipalities and operators, is well aware that this is not an easy matter and there will be compromises on both sides. But we are encouraged that there is increasingly common purpose between all stakeholders on the two most crucial points – that dense mobile networks will be the best way to enable new services and better experience for all citizens; and that these networks will only come about if approval and installation processes are simplified both for authorities and deployers.
The FCC is now seeking comment its proposals, asking for operators, facility developers, city and state officials, and public citizens to share their ideas and experiences.
If your company has a vested interest in the deployment of small cells, participation in the Small Cell Forum work programme will ensure your voice is heard. Find out more today www.smallcellforum.org
Key areas where the FCC is proposing to limit local authority:
Shot clock simplification
A ‘shot clock’ occurs when an authority fails to rule on an application within a set time period. For modifications to existing towers and base station sites, the shot clock is 60 days, provided those modifications do not significantly change the physical structure. But if the modification involves the collocation of a new carrier on the site, the shot clock is 90 days, and for brand new sites it is 150 days. The FCC is seeking public comment on a proposal to shorten all the shot clocks to 60 days, or even less for small cells and DAS.
The FCC also wants to stop municipalities from imposing temporary moratoria on considerations of applications to deploy wireless infrastructure. Several cities have done this because officials were overwhelmed by the volume and complexity of applications for small cell sites. The FCC is calling for an end to this practice.
Companies that want to deploy small cells on utility poles say some municipalities are voting to move their utilities underground. The FCC is considering whether the federal government could force cities with underground utility lines to make special arrangements for wireless infrastructure? According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, cities cannot prohibit companies from offering wireless service.