CTIA hopeful for siting reform, says stakes are ‘huge’ when it comes to 5G

The U.S. can still win the race to 5G—but it’s got to pass some significant reforms like those being considered by the FCC to make it happen.

That’s the message from CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker, who’s calling 2018 the year for action, because, as she puts it, “The stakes are huge.”

Baker said she wholeheartedly agrees with Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri’s assessment of the situation, where the U.S. and China are neck-and-neck when it comes to 5G. Suri made his comments on the eve of Mobile World Congress 2018 in Barcelona, where he also called on U.S. policymakers to make more spectrum available for 5G.

RELATED: Nokia CEO: U.S., China lead 5G race, but U.S. needs to make midband spectrum available

Baker told FierceWirelessTech she’s encouraged by the item on the FCC’s agenda next week that seeks to clarify and modernize procedures for National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) reviews of wireless infrastructure deployments.

CTIA commissioned a just-released report (PDF) from Accenture that projects 2018 NHPA/NEPA costs at $241 million as small cell deployment begins ramping up significantly. It’s estimated that carriers will deploy an incremental 86,000 small cells in 2018, a 550% increase from small cells deployed in 2017, to reach a cumulative small cell deployment number of 138,000.

To win the 5G race, the U.S. needs to accelerate small cell installations and reduce the costs of deployment, according to Baker. Whereas the industry has deployed 150,000 total towers over the past 10 or so years, it now is looking at deploying more than 800,000 small cells by 2026.

Should regulations remain unchanged, Accenture estimates the industry could spend an incremental $2.43 billion related to NHPA/NEPA reviews through 2026. However, regulatory reforms could reduce the proportion of reviews required by nearly two-thirds, in which case $1.56 billion would be available for redeployment over this period, which could have a substantial impact on 5G deployment and overall benefits to the U.S. economy, according to Accenture.

A group of 36 local elected officials sent a letter (PDF) to the FCC on Thursday in defense of local decision-making around 5G investments, small cell deployment and the use of public rights-of-way. They’re concerned the commission will take actions that harm the public by decreasing local authority without actually resolving the key problems that are limiting increased investment in better networks.

Fayetteville, Ark., Mayor Lioneld Jordan said his city wants to and has been collaborating with providers on 5G because it’s serious about improving its broadband infrastructure. His concern revolves around the city losing local control; it has a lot of historic areas that it wants to protect. “We don’t want any old thing put up any old way in this city. We have a rich history in this city and we protect that at all costs,” he said during a conference call with media.

Baker said the item the FCC is considering at its meeting Thursday is all about federal and doesn’t have to do with local control, which is something CTIA is working on separately and hopes to strike the right balance between local jurisdictions and industry needs.

Baker also noted that legislation is being advanced by Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Their proposal would provide a framework for state and local governments to expedite siting and permitting processes for new wireless networks and remove barriers to entry for providers of the services.

While it looks like the item on modifying the NHPA and NEPA procedures will pass next week—it’s expected to have three votes with the Republican-led commission—Baker said she is still hopeful it will pass on a bipartisan basis.