Feds loom as small-cell battles rage on between states, local governments

small cells
Skirmishes between state governments and local agencies over small cells continue to break out across the U.S.

Battles between U.S. state governments and municipalities over small cells continue to break out as carriers move to densify their networks. And if recent events are any indication, the states—and wireless service providers—seem to be winning.

“Late last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a low that streamlined the deployment of small cells—it standardizes the process and caps the fees that cities can charge,” Robert Gutman of Guggenheim Equity Research wrote this week in a research note. “Additionally, California’s state senate passed a similar bill that is awaiting the governor’s signature. The law in California has local municipalities worried they will lose control of the zoning process of wireless equipment.”

The California bill—SB 649—would essentially give wireless companies the same rights as public utilities. It would enable carriers and infrastructure vendors to place transmitters in public rights-of-way, the Santa Maria Times reported this week, and would cap fees cities could charge to install their devices.

RELATED: Tensions rise as officials struggle to address small cell deployment challenges

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 objects. And they sometimes require the installation of new poles that can be 120 feet or taller.

But zoning and permitting headaches have slowed the small cell market. Some municipalities are fighting small cell deployments based on concerns over aesthetics, noise, rights-of-way issues and other worries.

And municipalities around the nation continue to scramble to establish their own rules for small-cell deployments.

“The town council of Ship Bottom, N.J., voted unanimously to approve changes to the town’s land use code, specifically targeting wireless infrastructure,” Gutman wrote last week in another note to investors. “Additionally, the city council of Lancaster, PA changed its zoning rules to prevent the deployment of small cells on public rights-of-way. These towns are the latest are the latest examples of a trend we have been seeing—an increase of towns taking steps to slow down the deployment of small cells.”

And federal intervention looms on the horizon as the number of skirmishes between local municipalities and states increases. The FCC voted in May to move forward with plans to make it easier for wireless carriers and their partners to deploy small cells in municipalities across the country. The agency 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 siting and deployment processes.

Even President Donald Trump entered the fray this week following a highly publicized meeting with top-level wireless executives. “We can do a recommendation to the cities all over the country to get it going,” Trump said in support of wireless network operators.

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