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Opinion

FCC Wireless Siting Reform is Key to U.S. 5G Leadership

Tomorrow, the Federal Communications Commission will take a major step toward making the United States ready for 5G. The agency will set national guidelines for states and municipalities regarding wireless infrastructure — guidelines that reflect and are designed to promote the wireless networks of the 21st century. This may sound obscure, but it is the most important step policymakers can take this year to ensure jobs and economic growth in the industries of tomorrow stay in America.

Other countries are increasingly realizing — and more importantly, acting — to claim leadership in the next generation of wireless, viewing 5G as foundational to their countries’ future success. On a bipartisan basis, U.S. policymakers agree, citing 5G’s transformational power, economic impact and global implications.

A national framework for the wireless infrastructure that will power 5G networks is critical.  As the global 5G race continues, and U.S. wireless providers are preparing to invest $275 billion in these new networks, the escalating cost and burdensome procedures of siting new networks has become a significant barrier to continued American wireless leadership.

Here’s why: Somewhere in America right now, a technician is perched atop a bucket truck, 18 feet up in the air with a Phillips head screwdriver in hand, installing a device on a street light or the side of an apartment building.

This device — a small cell that contains modern wireless antennas — is roughly the size of a backpack.  This small cell and thousands more like them will help meet our growing demand for mobile-first lives and power the next-generation of wireless, 5G.

It will take this technician only about an hour or two to install that small cell, but it can take a year or two to get local government approvals for the installation.

That’s because while wireless infrastructure has evolved significantly, too many local regulations have remained the same.  Thousands of localities, each with their own rules and timelines, govern the installation of wireless infrastructure. This maze of disparate policies is often compounded by antiquated procedures and fee structures that began in the days of 200-foot cell towers.

Modern wireless networks increasingly depend on small cells, not new towers along the side of a highway.  In fact, some predict that over 80 percent of wireless infrastructure deployments will be small cells going forward.

And next-gen networks will require lots of these small cells – Accenture projected over 800,000 by 2026.  To put that number in perspective, the wireless industry built 154,000 cell towers over the last 30-plus years.  We will need five times the infrastructure in roughly one-quarter the time.

These statistics mean that reforms like what the FCC has proposed, in an effort led by Commissioner Brendan Carr, are poised to generate real and needed impacts – for our country’s economy and for all communities, including rural and suburban areas.

Accenture has estimated that reducing 5G deployment times by one year will boost the U.S. economy by $100 billion over the next 36 months.  In suburban and rural communities, where the cost to deploy next-gen connectivity is often higher, Corning has found that reducing network deployment costs in the biggest cities could free up over $2.3 billion in private capital investment to deploy 5G further and faster.  

More capital means more wireless deployments.  More wireless deployments mean more communities can experience 5G and unlock the benefits these advanced networks enable.

That’s where the FCC’s proposals – including establishing clear timelines for localities to act and ensuring cost-based fees – will be instrumental.

In its proposals, the agency also strikes a reasonable, balanced approach – one that recognizes the rights, authority, and obligations of local communities while also respecting Congress’ long-standing directive to remove barriers to deployment and bring next-generation wireless services to all Americans.

Just as importantly, the FCC’s action will build on the efforts of states, localities, and U.S. lawmakers.

Twenty states have already passed small cell legislation to make their communities 5G-ready: ready for investment, economic growth, technological innovation, and increased connectivity. Forward-thinking localities, from Pensacola and Houston to Gilbert (Az) and Indianapolis are taking steps to attract next-generation investment.  And similar reform proposals have received bipartisan support in Congress, as the STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act demonstrates.

But now it is time to act and ensure more communities in the country benefit from these reforms.

America’s wireless industry is committed to continued wireless leadership as 5G rolls out in coming months.  In fact, we’re leading the world in commercial 5G investment, and wireless providers are aggressively deploying these next-gen networks in coming months in communities across the country.

The FCC’s proposals show that our nation’s policymakers are committed as well – and to spurring billions in 5G investment, millions of 5G jobs, and ensuring that the 5G-powered innovations of tomorrow flourish in our country.


Meredith Attwell Baker is the president and CEO of CTIA, the wireless industry association, and a former FCC commissioner.

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