FCC likely to move on effort to ease small-cell deployments

CTIA once again urged the FCC to adopt policies that make it easier for carriers and their partners to deploy small cells in municipalities across the country. And at least one research firm believes the agency is likely to lend a hand.

All four major wireless carriers in the U.S. are looking to small cells to improve coverage and increase capacity in advance of 5G buildouts. The antennas, which can be as small as a lunchbox, can be placed on “street furniture” such as lampposts or traffic lights as well as on the sides of buildings or other private property.

But the small-cell market has been stymied by zoning and permitting headaches including hurdles regarding rights-of-way. CTIA filed a request with the FCC this week asking the agency to partner with local governments to help streamline processes for siting and deploying small cells.

“We want to invest tens of billions of dollars in these new small cell networks to augment today’s 4G networks and enable 5G, the next generation of wireless that will unlock smart city benefits and the Internet of Things,” wrote Brian Josef, CTIA’s assistant vice president of regulatory affairs, on the trade group’s blog. “But many local rules and regulations governing these antennas—where they can go, how long it takes to install them, and much it costs—are remnants from 20 or 30 years ago, when 200-foot tall cell towers miles apart were the norm.”

CTIA’s filing claims some communities “are imposing higher barriers, more burdensome regulations and higher charges,” discouraging or even blocking small cells and other wireless hardware. A high-ranking CTIA official met with the FCC last month to make its case as well.

Mobilitie, a California-based small vendor, petitioned the FCC in November for a ruling that would limit how much localities can charge for placing small cells and fiber backhaul in public rights-of-way. The FCC is accepting public comments on the petition, and Cowen and Company said the agency is likely to act on it by the end of the year.

“We believe the FCC is likely to act in Q4 2017 to facilitate small cell deployment—including new limits on local government fees for small cell/fiber deployment,” the firm said in a research note. “Localities are influential, so it’s not a slam dunk for the FCC. But we believe the FCC is anxious to accelerate 5G deployment. FCC action would be positive for Zayo, Crown Castle, Uniti, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T.”

The FCC is also likely to move forward with efforts to streamline other local zoning hurdles, Cowen and Company said, including reducing “tribal oversight of some deployments” and enforcing a shot clock that forces localities to act on small-cell deployment applications in a timely manner.