FCC urged to delay 5G Upgrade Order due to COVID-19, protests

Lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum are citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason to support or delay a vote on an FCC order that would make it easier to deploy 5G equipment on existing communications infrastructure.

A group of Republicans on Monday sent a letter (PDF) to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai saying the 5G Upgrade Order will allow companies to improve services in communities now, when they need it the most.

The next day, 24 Democratic members of the Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Chairman Pai pointing to the ongoing challenges that local governments face during the pandemic and urged him to delay the vote, saying the ruling would grant companies the right to expand existing cell sites without regard to local processes.

The FCC has said it will consider at its June 9 meeting a Declaratory Ruling and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would clarify, and seek comment on changes to, the FCC’s rules implementing a section of the Spectrum Act of 2012 in order to accelerate the deployment of communications infrastructure by facilitating the upgrade of existing sites for 5G networks.

More than a dozen counties and cities, including Los Angeles, Boston and Portland, Oregon, submitted a filing (PDF) on Tuesday saying the commission should not adopt the draft order as released. There’s no evidence that a change is required, but if the commission deems it necessary, it must consider the impact of the proposed changes on its test for whether a proposed modification “substantially change[s] the physical dimensions” of a wireless tower or base station, they said.

The City of Redmond, Washington, said the FCC’s proposed Declaratory Ruling could not have come at a worse time. The city, along with nearly every city in the United States, is adapting to the new reality: the majority of its workforce is now working from home.

“Creating online processes and procedures, using virtual meetings (both internally and with the public), and attempting to continue normal permitting processes so as to facilitate continued construction and economic growth in the City is all consuming,” the city told the FCC (PDF). “The City does not have the time, nor the resources, to effectively evaluate the proposed Declaratory Ruling, much less retrain staff, implement new processes, or redesign permits to implement a final order.”

In fact, rather than effectuating the commission’s goal of streamlining the eligible facility request process, a new Declaratory Ruling during the pandemic has the potential to confuse and delay permitting for both existing facilities and new deployments, said the hometown of Microsoft.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has taken the lead on the 5G infrastructure siting efforts. The item on the June 9 agenda will help operators swap out 3G and 4G antennas for new 5G ones on a much faster, more predictable scale, he told FierceWireless last week. Earlier efforts to streamline siting rules focused on new technology, like small cells, but those efforts aren't enough. 

RELATED: Carr: 5G Upgrade Order will make antenna swaps faster, more predictable

The two Democratic commissioners are supporting the municipalities, with both Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks commenting on Twitter.

‘Looks like pizza boxes’

Michael Marcus, a retired FCC senior executive whose career focused on spectrum policy, told the commission in a filing last month (PDF) that he “unambiguously” supports the draft Declaratory Ruling and NPRM.

However, he added that in the long term, 5G infrastructure will continue to have conflicts with its neighbors unless the carriers and the infrastructure industry stop pursuing mainly legal solutions to conflicts and start recognizing that new industry frameworks are needed due to the changing nature of infrastructure.

With 5G, equipment will be much lower in height than previous generations and many Americans who have never seen a base station in their neighborhood will have one on their block or the adjacent block.

Marcus, who occasionally posts examples of messy installations, said the industry needs the support of the people in these neighborhoods. “Industry cannot keep that support if they build needlessly messy infrastructure on a recurring basis, even if much of the infrastructure is neat,” he said. “Rather than spending large sums on lawyers and lobbyists the industry should look at itself in the mirror and realize that consistent neat infrastructure that really ‘looks like pizza boxes’ is necessary and vital to their long-term success.”