In the race to 5G, no carrier wants to fall behind in deploying their next generation of wireless networks. This is because 5G networks will be able to deliver speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G networks, will reduce latency and will support a drastic increase in the number of devices that wirelessly connect to the internet, enabling new and innovative services to develop. What’s more, in the very development and deployment of 5G networks, the economy that leads the way toward next generation wireless networks will reap the lion’s share of its benefits.
However, around the country, regulatory barriers continue to delay or outright prevent the deployment of these 5G networks.
To meet growing demand, carriers must deploy more wireless facilities in tighter packed areas. This has led them to deploy thousands of small wireless facilities (normally about the size of a pizza box) that can be attached to existing utility poles, lampposts or buildings. A recent study by Accenture Strategy estimated that 86,000 small cells will be deployed in 2018, a 550 percent increase from 2017. However, many regulators around the country still treat small cells as though they are traditional towers. And, when carriers must undergo the costly and lengthy application processes designed for large towers, they have less capital available to deploy more small cells and expand network coverage.
First, the good news. In March, the Federal Communications Commission approved a Report and Order, which exempts small wireless facilities from needless environmental and historical reviews. This saves companies valuable time and money on deployment. Further, the Commission will soon vote on a Report and Order which would adopt a new “one-touch make ready” regime for pole attachments. Under this model, instead of multiple construction crews performing “make ready” work independently, “one-touch make-ready” allows for a single approved contractor to perform all the necessary work to prepare a utility pole for network upgrades or a new attachment. This significantly speeds up the deployment process.
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Unfortunately, however, the FCC’s authority only goes so far. State and local governments still present significant obstacles for broadband deployment. While some states have passed legislation to streamline local siting review, as of May, 30 states still have not enacted any small cell deployment legislation. In these states, carriers face significant costs and delays that can prevent the deployment of 5G networks.
Thankfully, some members of Congress are taking action. On June 28, Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act to address these local barriers. The bill would prevent local governments from unreasonably discriminating among broadband providers and would require local governments to base their approval or denial of an application on publicly available criteria that are reasonable, objective and non-discriminatory in nature. Further, to help ensure that no communities remain unserved while carriers wait in regulatory limbo, the bill establishes specific timeframes for the approval of siting requests for wireless facilities. It would also limit application fees to the actual and direct costs of the governmental entity, enabling carriers to invest more capital in deployment.
Taken together, these concrete steps will lower the regulatory burdens faced by carriers as they build out the next generation of wireless networks. As a result, communities across the country will gain access to high speed, lower-latency wireless connectivity that can stimulate the growth and development of local businesses.
At the same time, the bill respects the rights of local governments. Most notably, it allows a state or local government to regulate deployment on the basis of objective and reasonable engineering standards, safety requirements and aesthetic or concealment requirements. To put it another way, cities would still have the authority to ensure that small cell deployments fit the design and safety preferences of the local community.
Winning the race to 5G means we must move away from traditional notions about infrastructure deployment in this country. The STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act presents the next step in that path forward, and there is no time to look back.
Jeffrey Westling is a technology and innovation policy associate at the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.
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