Marek’s Take: Covid-19 shutdown is wreaking havoc on 5G deployments

Marek's take

Wireless networks have never been more important than they are today as millions of Americans honor stay-at-home orders by working and studying at home. But there are some signs that these critical Covid-19 measures are putting strains on local governments and that in turn is causing delays in 5G infrastructure permits.

Wireless operators and infrastructure companies need local governments to approve new cell sites that are needed to strengthen their 4G networks and to deploy 5G. Because 5G is a higher speed network that offers more bandwidth and lower latency, it requires more cell sites than previous generations of wireless networking technology. In addition, some wireless operators are using high-band millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum for 5G. In higher spectrum bands the wireless signal will only travel shorter distances and that means more cell sites are required to provide consistent wireless coverage.

The Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) is working with municipalities to try to accelerate these cell site permits. However, most municipalities consider the issuing of these permits as a non-essential activity.

“It’s a mixed bag,” said Jonathan Adelstein, president and CEO of the WIA. “In many cases city halls are closed but we are seeing heroic efforts to get [cell site permits] moved through the system.”

Adelstein said that the WIA is working directly with a number of municipal representatives to figure out how they can get permits approved despite the shutdown. Many of these municipal representatives are part of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) that was established by the FCC in 2017 to make recommendations to the commission on ways to accelerate broadband deployments and remove any obstacles. According to Alex Gellman, CEO of Vertical Bridge, a privately held tower and cell site owner and manager, this group has proven to be very valuable in this current crisis. “They are trying to share best practices,” he said.

According to Adelstein, WIA and its members are emphasizing that permitting is necessary to meet the increasing wireless capacity demands and make sure all networks continue to perform. “So far the networks are keeping up,” Adelstein said. “But we have capacity demands on the networks that we are trying to address.”

Wireless operators are also feeling the pinch from these permitting delays. T-Mobile’s new CEO Mike Sievert hinted at possible cell site permitting problems because of the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders in an interview with CNBC after it was announced that T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint was finally complete. “This crisis might affect permitting,” he said. “Governments and localities are operating at less-than-capacity.”

The current shutdown of municipal offices around the U.S. is particularly challenging because many local governments still rely on signed documents and embossed engineering drawings for permit approvals. “That’s where the slowdown occurs,” said Gellman.

Plus, many cities require permits to be discussed in open meetings, which currently aren’t occurring. Some municipalities do not have electronic filing available and not all city officials have statutory authority to approve permits remotely.

However, Adelstein said that most cities are responding positively and are willing to work with the WIA to try to find solutions. The WIA and its members are also trying to help municipalities by offering free legal work or other resources to help them work through these challenges. In the meantime, the WIA is working on a document that outlines different ways communities can overcome some of these obstacles and get cell site permits approved.

Some examples include holding zoning hearings via video conferencing or accepting scans or photos of engineering drawings until city offices are open to receive embossed and certified copies of the plans. 

Inspections are an issue too

But it’s not just the cell site permits that are in jeopardy; inspections are also being delayed. Gellman said that before a tower company can turn on a site it has to be inspected. “We are looking at some kind of time frame where there is adjusted protocol in place,” Gellman said. For example, tower companies might be able to turn on a site now but that site is subject to inspection at a future date and if it fails, the company must bring it up to code as quickly as possible.

Adelstein even suggested there might be virtual inspections using a remote terminal (or even a drone) that can take place now in lieu of on-site inspections. “There are practical workarounds for these roadblocks,” he said.

For now, WIA and others are encouraged by the dialog they are having with various representatives from municipalities and they hope that these conversations will help keep 5G deployments from being completely derailed by Covid-19.