With eye on 5G, FCC approves rules to speed up small cell and DAS deployments

WASHINGTON--The FCC voted to approve new rules designed to accelerate the deployment of wireless infrastructure, something carriers and the infrastructure industry have been clamoring for as operators look to densify their networks with new small cells, Distributed Antenna Systems and other network equipment.

The measure was approved by a 5-0 vote and takes several steps to speed up the rollout of both small cells and DAS, as well as antennas and other network gear from multiple carriers collocated on the same cell site. The FCC paired the infrastructure item with an inquiry into how best to deploy spectrum above 24 GHz for "5G" service, and several commissioners said that the two items are related since the FCC is trying to facilitate the deployment of infrastructure that will support next-generation wireless service.

In the order, the FCC approved changes to the federal environmental review process that makes it easier to deploy small cells as well as collocated equipment. Under the new rules, that equipment includes not only gear on buildings and cell towers but also utility poles. The rules also exclude equipment associated with antennas, including wires and cables, from counting against a deployment.

Additionally, the FCC's new rules make clear that its "shot clock" for towers also applies to small cells and DAS. Importantly, the FCC rules clarify definitions of language in Section 6409(a) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012, which was enacted in February 2012. Section 6409(a) prohibits state and local governments from denying any eligible facilities' request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not "substantially change" the physical dimensions of such tower or base station. In fact, the law says municipalities must approve infrastructure deployments that meet that definition.

A crucial aspect of the new rules is that they adopt a 60-day period of review before collocation applications can be granted. However, if a municipality has not acted by the end of the 60-day period, building can go ahead on day 61.

Further, the FCC adopted an exemption from the environmental public notice process for temporary towers that are going to be in used for less than 60 days and that are less than 200 feet tall. That rule is designed to speed up deployment of towers to improve coverage in emergencies and after natural disasters.

The FCC said it is speeding up deployments while allowing state, local and tribal governments to protect and preserve their communities. For example, the rules do not apply to collocated deployments in historical districts or on structures that are eligible to be in federal preservation listings.

"The reality is that in order to meet our ever-growing communications needs, carriers cannot just acquire spectrum," Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at FCC's open meeting. "They must also deploy that spectrum using a hardened, robust infrastructure, which includes antennas and base stations."

Commissioner Ajit Pai said that the public is done a disservice when swapping out a 3G antenna for an LTE antenna is treated the same way as constructing a new 200-foot tower.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said that the order sets the stage for the faster deployment of a new generation of infrastructure. "What we do today goes well beyond traditional towers," she said, adding that the FCC is taking the "first steps to encourage infrastructure that is absolutely critical for the next generation of wireless service: 5G. This is a good thing, because the race to 5G is on."

Rosenworcel noted that 5G networks will likely use millimeter-wave spectrum, which will require different kinds of infrastructure, including MIMO antenna arrays and heterogeneous network architectures.

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