FCC moves ahead with measure to ease small-cell deployments

Ajit Pai (FCC)
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is looking for ways to streamline zoning, permitting and siting challenges with small cells. Image: FCC

As expected, the FCC moved forward with plans to make it easier for wireless carriers and their partners to deploy small cells in municipalities across the country.

The Commission approved “an examination of the regulatory impediments (PDF)” at the state and local levels that can slow the rollout of small cells and other transmitters in an effort to streamline zoning, permitting and siting challenges. The agency is seeking comment on ways to improve rules and processes at the local, state and federal level, and will examine FCC rules for procedures for historic preservation and environmental review.

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. Meanwhile, some municipalities are fighting small cell deployments based on concerns over aesthetics, rights-of-way issues and other concerns.

CTIA filed a request (PDF) with the FCC last month asking the agency to partner with local governments to help streamline processes for siting and deploying small cells.

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 press its case.

“I have yet to come across a single community that wants to be left behind or overlooked as we embark on this new frontier” of 5G and the internet of things (IoT), Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said during the FCC’s meeting this morning. “Approving applications to site antennas and other infrastructure are difficult challenges for local governments … Many are overwhelmed.”

Among other things, the FCC hopes to establish a “deemed grant” that would enable deployments to move forward if local governments don’t act on applications within a specific amount of time. The Commission will also look into the fees charged by some localities to deploy small cells.

“Many localities and tribes are undoubtedly acting in good faith,” Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said. “But bad actors are ruining it for everyone … Infrastructure siting is not a way to increase revenues.”

The measure passed on a 3-0 vote.