FCC must walk a fine line in convincing municipalities to embrace small cells

colin gibbs
LAS VEGAS – Carriers working to densify their networks continue to struggle with permitting hurdles at the local level, significantly slowing the pace of deployments of small cells and other transmitters. But the FCC may be preparing to intervene – for better or for worse.

Small cells are generally seen as a crucial component of 5G technologies and services, which have been major topics at this year’s CTIA Super Mobility event in Las Vegas. The low-powered access nodes enable carriers to improve coverage in hard-to-reach areas – particularly in densely populated areas – as mobile data consumption soars ever higher.

The haste to roll out small cells has resulted in pushback from some municipalities, though. The Wall Street Journal reported in June that Sprint’s efforts to deploy as many as 70,000 of the transmitters across the country had been delayed due in large part to trouble obtaining permits.

Some of that pushback has clearly been warranted given reports of vendors installing small cells without permits or that are simply eyesores. But vendors must also overcome hurdles such as a not-in-my-backyard mentality from residents or recent moves by local governments to hike permitting fees in an effort to cash in on the trend in the short term.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said this week that federal regulators must explain to local authorities and citizens not just what small cells do, but why they’re important.

“We have to help leaders at the local level – and all levels for that matter – understand that 5G will make the Internet of Things real. But even talking about IoT is too obtuse,” Wheeler said in his keynote to open the show Wednesday. “Let’s talk about the benefits of smart-city energy grids, safer transportation networks and new opportunities to improve health care. Let’s paint the picture of how 5G will unleash immersive education and entertainment industries, and how 5G will unlock new ways for local employers to grow, whether it’s a small specialty shop or a large factory, creating new jobs and improving services for the community.”

Similarly, he said, the FCC must explain the sacrifices that must be made by communities that don’t embrace small cells. If deploying smaller transmitters takes as long and costs as much as building a macrosite in some areas, he said, those communities may not be able to access 5G technologies and services.

Commissioner Ajit Pai went even further this week, suggesting the FCC could impose penalties on municipalities that make small cell deployments too difficult. The Commission adopted rules two years ago that made clear that its “shot clock” for towers also applies to small cells and DAS, allowing deployments to begin if municipalities haven’t acted on collocation applications within 60 days.

“It seems to me that if we have the authority to implement the shot clock, we have the authority to make sure there are consequences” when local authorities are unresponsive, Pai said Thursday during an event featuring three commissioners and CTIA President Meredith Attwell Baker.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly also expressed frustration with municipal governments, saying onerous zoning requirements and excessive permitting fees create unnecessary speed bumps on the road to 5G.

“Some localities have been jacking up the price of permits,” O’Rielly said. “We ought to be willing to go to communities … if they’re standing in the way of progress. We’re going to have to do different ideas to convince these localities that they’re in the way.”

The FCC under Wheeler doesn't seem likely to crack down on municipalities, of course, but it must walk a fine line here. It should certainly make efforts to ensure as many Americans as possible can access 5G as new technologies and services come online, delivering massive amounts of data at lightning speeds. And the Commission is surely right that some local authorities may not yet understand the advantages 5G can bring to the public.

But the Commission should also strive not to be seen as a federal bully strong-arming municipalities into submission to allow carriers and their partners to install small cells at will. Because doing so will only increase the backlash that is already occurring in cities and towns across the U.S. – Colin @colin_gibbs