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FCC plans small cell rule changes

by Martha DeGrasse

All four of the nationwide wireless carriers hope to deploy tens of thousands of outdoor small cells to support 5G, and they're looking to Washington for help with the process. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, chairman Ajit Pai's point person for wireless infrastructure, says the agency is starting with environmental and historical review, and will then move on to address state and local permitting processes and fees.

At its March 22nd open meeting, the FCC will vote on an order that would shorten the historic and environmental review procedures for macro sites, and eliminate most of these procedures for small cells. The order would put small cells into the same category as Wi-Fi routers and signal boosters from a regulatory perspective.


Currently, cell sites of any size are classified as federal undertakings subject to federal regulation, because they use spectrum licensed by the government. Network operators and their agents are required to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act when designing and building small cells.  Companies must complete an environmental analysis and the document must be put on public notice for one month. Likewise, builders are required to consult with state historic preservation offices and with any tribal nations that have expressed an interest in the proposed project. The FCC notes that tribal sites of significance are often not publicly identified.


Earlier this year, President Trump identified these small cell approval processes as an area ripe for reform when he announced his $200 billion infrastructure plan. The task of changing these rules fall to the FCC, and Commissioner Carr is leading the charge. 


"There’s a lot we can do at the Commission," Carr said.  "The federal environmental/historic process was designed for the macro tower/macrocell era and the costs and fees associated with that worked to some extent when we deployed 3G, when deployed 4G, but when you're going to 5G you can't have the same permitting cost structure that applied to one macrocell that served large square miles."


Carr said small cell coverage areas are measured in meters, not miles, and that operators will deploy 10 to 100 times as many small cells as macrocells.


'We have to make sure that the permitting process that was designed for macro towers makes sense for small cells, and we've got a lot of stuff that we're looking at to try to do that," Carr said. 


The commissioner said he divides small cell issues into two categories. One is the NEPA and NHPA issues, and the other is the overall process by which jurisdictions permit small cells and charge for access to the rights of way. He said in both categories, the biggest issue for the wireless industry is fees. 


"Cities and municipalities need to be compensated for their costs, but the deployment itself in my mind is not what should be sort of a profit center or a moneymaking venture for cities because that strips capital out of more deployment. So we are looking at a whole set of issues that comes to state and locals - I haven't made any final decisions yet about that ...  but we're going to continue to be turning toward state and local and I expect that we'll be taking action there."  


Carr's first step towards deregulation of small cell deployments won immediate praise from industry trade group CTIA. CTIA President Meredith Atwell Baker said the current laws are adding millions of dollars to deployment costs, and urged the other FCC commissioners to adopt the new order. 









Small Cell Market Forecast

Profiles of 19 small cell vendors plus total addressable market forecasts and predictions of the numbers of actual nodes that have been and will be deployed. Explanations of fronthaul, backhaul, CPRI, eICIC, and mobile network architecture. Discussion of the different types of small cell architectures, including outdoor distributed antenna systems (DAS.). Report produced by iGR Research.


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