FCC to wade into local guidelines for small cell build-outs

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr announced local deployment guidelines that the agency plans to implement in order to speed the rollout of small cells nationwide. Carr explained that the guidelines are intended to create a balance between local priorities and federal 5G build-out goals.

Carr announced the new guidelines in Indianapolis, a city he said has embraced 5G technology by creating “forward-looking policies” for small cell deployments. Indeed, both AT&T and Verizon recently announced that they both will launch 5G technology in the city by the end of this year.

Carr said the FCC’s small cell guidelines stem in part from the actions Indiana’s state legislature took on small cells. “These are commonsense ideas drawn from the hard work of leaders right here in Indiana’s General Assembly and in 19 other state legislatures,” Carr said during a press conference announcing the guidelines. “By taking your ideas nationwide, we help ensure that every community in our country is 5G Ready. And that will make a difference to American jobs and families. In fact, an economic analysis released last week suggests that this FCC decision would cut about $2 billion in red tape, stimulate $2.5 billion in additional investment, and create 27,000 jobs. Moreover, by lowering the cost of deploying small cells, this decision will flip the business case for building 5G and next-gen networks in rural and less affluent communities. According to the analysis, two million more homes will be reached by small cells as the result of this decision—and 97% of those will be in rural and suburban communities.”

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Car said the FCC will soon introduce guidelines for small cells that include four key elements:

  1. The rules won’t disturb existing small cell legislation at the state level but will provide guidance on local reviews of small cells that can inhibit deployment.

  2. State governments can charge wireless providers for the costs associated with reviewing small cell deployment, but the FCC’s rules will prohibit what Carr described as excessive fees. “To encourage cooperation between local governments and wireless providers, the FCC in the order provides specific fee amounts, below which we presume the local governments’ fees are lawful,” Carr said.

  3. Local governments will need to conduct approval processes within 60 days for small cells being added to existing structures and 90 days when a provider wants to put up a new small cell pole.

  4. Local governments will be able to manage small cell deployments via “reasonable” aesthetic reviews.

The FCC is expected to introduce these rules and then solicit commentary on them before voting for them.

This is the second major set of small cell guidelines shepherded by Commissioner Carr. In March, the FCC passed 3-2 along party lines rules that clarified the treatment of small cells so they’re not treated the same as macro cells. The order also excluded small wireless facilities deployed on nontribal lands from National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, concluding that these facilities are not “undertakings” or “major federal actions.”

Wireless providers are keen to deploy small cells in order to launch 5G services and densify their networks. Wireless carriers have generally pushed for local legislation that allows them to quickly deploy small cells on public infrastructure, such as traffic lights.

Likely as a result, the CTIA trade association recently said that the number of U.S. small cells ought to rise from 13,000 in 2017 to 86,000 this year—a 550% increase—and over 800,000 by 2026.