FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr talks 5G, small cell regulations and national security

Brendan Carr is the FCC's newest commissioner. (FCC)

The FCC’s newest commissioner, Brendan Carr, was sworn into office in August. Almost immediately, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai put Carr in charge of streamlining the rules around small cell deployments, part of the agency’s overall push to ensure that the United States can play a lead role in the deployment of 5G network technology.

And that effort was underscored this month when President Trump took the mostly unprecedented move to block Broadcom’s proposed purchase of Qualcomm before the transaction had even been finalized. A major element in the government’s reasoning behind the move was that San Diego-based Qualcomm plays a central role in the global development of wireless technology, and that 5G is an issue of national security.

Thus, the stakes are high for Carr’s efforts to speed the rollout of 5G. And on Thursday, the FCC is scheduled to vote on his first major push in the area. Specifically, the agency will vote on rules that would “clarify and modify the procedures for NHPA [National Historic Preservation Act] and NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] review of wireless infrastructure deployments.”

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As part of Carr’s efforts to generate support for those rules, he has been engaging with a variety of players including the CTIA and others; he even has a Twitter hashtag for the topic, #5GReady. And that’s partly why Carr sat down for an interview with FierceWireless.

Below are Carr’s lightly edited comments on small cells, 5G, national security and other topics.

What is the FCC voting on this Thursday?

“The item that we’re going to vote on on March 22 does three main things,” Carr said. “The first piece of it deals with small cells. And what it says on small cells is that it excludes them entirely from the federal history and environmental review procedure. Up to 80% of deployments, whether it’s 5G or densification for 4G, going forward are going to be small cells. And these procedures were designed for the macrocell era.”

Carr said other elements of the vote on Thursday will deal with streamlining the review and deployment process for larger tower deployments.

“How do we win the global race to 5G? Countries around the world want to be first,” Carr said, arguing that the FCC is working to make sure the regulator’s rules will allow carriers to quickly deliver broadband to Americans.

Will the FCC’s proposed rules supersede local and state regulations for small cells?

“It doesn’t deal with state and local review,” Carr said, explaining that Thursday’s vote only deals with rules for federal reviews. “There’s nothing in that decision that’s going to greenlight a local deployment. They’re really going to be two separate issues.”

However, he said that the agency will continue to consider looking at state and local level rules. “Those are issues that we’re going to continue to study,” he said.

What about tribal reviews for small cells?

Carr said that fees for tribal reviews on small cells will also be eliminated through Thursday’s vote. “We’re moving to align ourselves more with upfront ACHP [Advisory Council on Historic Preservation] fees,” he said, explaining that some tribes have been charging upfront fees of up to several thousand dollars for small cell reviews, but according to ACHP rules, no upfront fees like that are due.

Carr said though that carriers may still pay fees to tribes that they use as contracted cultural advisers.

Some at the local and federal level have raised concerns about the way small cells are designed, and whether they are visually appealing or not. What is the FCC’s role in this area?

“As a consumer in particularly, I appreciate the move that we’re seeing out there toward increased stealthing and blending,” Carr said, noting also that small cells are by their smaller nature less intrusive deployments. However, he said that the agency’s vote on Thursday won’t get into that issue. “Those tend to be things that are imposed through state and local zoning and other requirements, so it’s not really an issue here.”

“At the same time, also as a consumer, I particularly like getting fast, high-speed broadband. So, I understand that we also have to put antennas out there,” he said.

Fundamentally, though, are small cell aesthetics an issue that the FCC will consider?

“I think there is and always will be an important role for state and local government officials to play, particularly at the zoning level, when it comes to deployments of small cells. And I think you’re really seeing a lot of forward-looking approaches out there,” Carr said, noting that roughly a dozen states so far have passed legislation easing the deployment of small cells.

“So far it’s been a role for state and localities to deal with,” Carr said. But when pressed on whether the FCC will ultimately weigh in on the topic, he said “we’ll see where the record goes.”

Is 5G an issue of national security?

“I think, rightly so, there is a lot of focus at the federal government as, how do we make sure that our networks are secure?” Carr said. “At the FCC, we have an important role to play with this. The Department of Homeland Security is actually our sector-specific agency for telecom, that plays a central role for cybersecurity. And my view is that we at the FCC should be working with DHS in supporting those efforts. I think now is the right time, as we look at the rollout of 5G networks, to see how we make sure that cybersecurity and security in general are built into these networks. And the private sector is actually devoting tremendous resources, funding as well, to make sure that the rollout of these networks is done in a way that they continue to be secure. So, I think it’s a good discussion that we’re having right now, to make sure that we’re leading the world in 5G deployment, and these networks are secure.”

Should the FCC take an active role in network security?

“We have some regulation in this space, but it’s very difficult for us as a federal regulator, given how quickly things move in the cybersecurity space, to be too rigid in the requirements  we impose. There’s a lot of good work that’s going on both at DHS and at other private and public forums to make sure that cybersecurity is built in. And so I think that type of collaborative approach is best in this space.”

There have been some concerns raised about the FCC’s approval of AT&T’s purchase of FiberTower and Verizon’s purchase of Straight Path. Some have argued that the agency should have auctioned off those companies’ millimeter-wave spectrum licenses rather than approving those transactions, since FiberTower and Straight Path did not adhere to their spectrum-buildout timelines.

First, Carr noted that Verizon’s purchase of Straight Path was approved under the Obama administration’s FCC, headed by Tom Wheeler.

More broadly though, he said that “each transaction we just have to take up under its own merits and make the best call we can about how the proceeding serves the public interest, and hopefully we strike the right balance in those cases.”

Carr added: “At the highest level principle, every entity should have a fair shot and access to spectrum. But if that spectrum can move out to the marketplace in secondary market transactions, as we’re seeing in those cases, or through auctions, I think they’re both valid means for getting spectrum out there.”

Will the United States lead in 5G?

“I think we’re in good shape” on spectrum, Carr said, noting that the FCC has scheduled an auction of 28 GHz spectrum for November. “One potential bottleneck that we’ve had is our infrastructure deployment rules, and that’s why it’s so important that we vote on our first really big step to update our infrastructure rules to make sure that they’re 5G ready. So, by taking these two steps, spectrum and infrastructure, we’re in really good shape to help lead the world when it comes to 5G.”

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