Operators face local opposition to 5G small cell deployments

The City of Portland, Oregon, is suing the FCC for its wireless pre-emption order, which went into effect in January 2019 and limits local government authority to regulate how 5G small cell equipment is deployed.

In September 2018, the FCC passed a wireless pre-emption order that it says will help streamline 5G small cell deployments and ensure that wireless carriers have low-cost access to public rights of way and existing support structures such as city-owned utility poles and street lights. The FCC has said the order was necessary to “help ensure the United States wins the global race to 5G,” by removing regulatory barriers that it claims would “unlawfully inhibit the deployment of infrastructure necessary to support these new services.”

Wireless carriers have argued that a rapid 5G deployment will require rules to help carriers navigate the permitting process which varies across local governments and municipalities. This is a problem that carriers had to deal with when deploying 4G small cells.

“There were no standards for this, and the cell site approval process had become very onerous,” analyst Mark Lowenstein, managing director at Mobile Ecosystem, told FierceWireless in an email. “There were attempts at both the local level and federal level to both streamline the process and also to develop some standardized guidelines, such as the cost and length of approval process.”

Portland's Mayor Ted Wheeler has called the FCC order a “land grab against local infrastructure.” And Portland is just one municipality that has asked the FCC to reconsider its pre-emption order. As wireless providers begin deploying small cell equipment throughout neighborhoods and city districts, opposition to the order is growing. In late 2018, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, along with City Attorney Pete Holmes, announced the City of Seattle will coordinate with other cities in a lawsuit against the order.

“In coordination with the overwhelming majority of local jurisdictions that oppose this unprecedented federal intrusion by the FCC, we will be appealing this order, challenging the FCC’s authority and its misguided interpretations of federal law,” Durkan said in an October 2018 press release.

Samir Saini, New York City’s chief information officer and commissioner at the state’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, made a similar stand in a September 2018 blog post on Medium, as has Boston, Massachusetts, Mayor Martin Walsh.

Local concern about small cell deployments isn’t altogether unwarranted. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, local residents, business owners and elected officials were shocked to learn AT&T was reportedly digging holes in the middle of public sidewalks for small cell wireless facilities without coordinating or informing anyone, according to a news story from Baton Rouge-based Business Report. Other city governments have raised concerns that lack of authority over when, where and how small cell equipment is deployed could lead to complications such as damage to historic buildings, unsightly installations in historic or design districts, and decreased property values.

RELATED: Public policy will lay the foundation for 5G and beyond

Chris Nicoll, principal analyst of wireless and mobile at ACG Research, said that wireless carriers might be able to regain favor at the local level if they took more care to hide the equipment. One of the chief complaints local governments have against small cell equipment is that the equipment itself can become an eyesore. In Palo Alto, California, for example, the local government was able to force Verizon to keep most of the equipment—except the antenna—out of sight using shrouds; while communities in Piedmont and Santa Cruz require Verizon to place equipment in underground vaults, according to local media reports.

“It’s only been recently that I’ve seen designs where you have a light pole, but all the electronics are inside the light pole,” Nicoll told FierceWireless, referring to recent designs from Ericsson and Huawei.

“The industry has not kept up with its early good faith comments that it would look to make telecom infrastructure more socially acceptable,” Nicoll said. “That’s fallen by the wayside, and it’s contributing to this problem. It’s an example of the telecom industry not being as responsive to communities as potentially they could be.”

Nicoll pointed to Sprint’s small cell “magic box,” built by Airspan. “Sprint has put hundreds of thousands of these into small businesses and enterprises and people’s homes,” he said. “That’s one way of adding capacity and coverage to a network, and it doesn’t require any outside equipment whatsoever.” He also noted Sprint’s strand-mount strategy, in which small cell facilities from Airspan and Huawei can attach directly to telecom wires. “It’s a small unit, it’s self-contained, but it’s a small cell,” he said. “It doesn’t require regulatory review. If companies come out with integrated light poles and telephone poles, with electronics on the inside, a lot of these issues go away. If it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind."

RELATED: Sprint: Altice deal lets us cut through red tape of small-cell deployments

The next question is whether opposition at the local level will seriously impede 5G rollouts across the country. Nicoll said these lawsuits may impact 5G rollouts as it did 4G small cell deployments. But he added that 5G will take five years to deploy, and any delays caused by local opposition are unlikely to greatly interfere with deployments.

Lowenstein agreed. “We'll see some opposition [and] issues on a local, or case-by-case basis, but I don't see anything happening in a more systematic way than we've see before,” he said. “In fact, I think municipalities might become more proactive in trying to participate in small cell deployment in some way, for example linking 'smart city' requirements to some approvals.”