Sprint, Nokia executives urge FCC, White House to speed small cell siting process

Nokia’s Brian Hendricks, right, sits with Sprint’s Charles McKee, center, and the FCC’s Don Stockdale, left, to discuss 5G cell siting at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show.

SAN FRANCISCO—There are hundreds of thousands of cellular sites across the country today, according to those in the industry, and that number will need to move into the millions as wireless carriers densify their networks with small cells and other coverage aids in the move to 5G. And that, according to Nokia’s Brian Hendricks, creates a major need for regulators to reduce the amount of red tape around cellular network deployments.

“You have to densify the network,” said Hendricks, Nokia’s head of policy and government relations. “We really need to have the land use policies that will allow us to deploy hundreds of thousands of small cells all over the country.”

Hendricks isn’t alone.

“We’re going to have to find new ways to speed this thing along,” agreed Sprint’s Charles McKee, VP of government affairs for federal and state regulatory. McKee and Hendricks made their comments here at the Mobile World Congress Americas trade show during a panel discussion about 5G cell siting.

Indeed, McKee detailed a number of obstacles Sprint has encountered as it has worked to deploy small cells and other network elements. He said some cities have asked Sprint to deploy all new street lights across the entire city as a prerequisite to Sprint installing small cells on some street lights for cellular coverage. He said that other cities have asked the carrier to provide free, citywide Wi-Fi as a condition to accessing the city’s infrastructure.

Nokia’s Hendricks said that, based on one estimate, wireless carriers could be on the hook for up to $10 billion in total regulatory fees in order to deploy small cells on a nationwide basis—an expense that would be in addition to the actual cost of the network hardware and physical labor.

In order to address these obstacles, Sprint’s McKee argued, “everybody has a role to play.” He noted that, earlier this year, Sprint’s CEO Marcelo Claure told President Donald Trump that it only takes an hour for the carrier to actually install a small cell, but can take up to a year for the carrier to obtain local approval to install that small cell.

Not surprisingly, Sprint’s McKee and Nokia’s Hendricks urged representatives from the FCC and the White House to implement rules that would speed up the deployment of small cells and other equipment that carriers have said they will need to deploy on the path toward 5G network technology.

In response, both the FCC’s Don Stockdale and the White House’s Kelsey Guyselman agreed that the current process was too slow and cumbersome, but added that local regulations addressing historical sites and community architecture need to be considered.

“We will need to find a way to modernize and streamline this process,” Stockdale said, explaining that the agency is currently reviewing comments and rules to that effect. Stockdale, who is chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, declined to say when the agency might implement such rules.

But, he added, “local governments do have a very important role.”

Guyselman, an adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, agreed on the need for streamlined rules, and noted the Trump administration has worked to issue what guidelines it can to speed network deployments. But she too said that local rules and guidelines need to be considered. “There’s certainly a need for balance in these types of discussions,” she said.

The need for small cells, as well as local regulations that in some case prevent the deployment of those devices, is clear. For example, Sprint small cell vendor ExteNet Systems supplied 200 small cells in Manhattan that the carrier said boosted its median download speeds by 43% and its median upload speeds by 56%. Further, a growing number of states have inked legislation intended to speed up small cell deployments; just this summer, legislators in Texas and California joined a number of other states in moving forward on the topic.