FCC’s newest commissioner picked to lead small cell deployment reform

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr speaks at the CCA show.

FORT WORTH, Texas—The FCC’s newest commissioner, Brendan Carr, said that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has appointed him to take the lead on the agency’s wireless infrastructure proceeding, including for small cells. And he boasted of progress: He said the agency will vote next month on rules aimed at eliminating the need for historic preservation review in cases where telecom providers swap out old equipment with new equipment.

“As a practical matter, this order could go a long way in speeding the regulatory review process as providers seek to update and densify their networks for 5G. The text of this proposed decision will be released publicly later today, so all stakeholders will have a chance to review it before we vote at the Commission,” Carr said.

Carr made his comments—his first public speech as an FCC commissioner—here during a keynote presentation at the CCA’s annual trade show. Carr’s comments on wireless infrastructure in general and small cells specifically represent a win for the CCA and its wireless operator members, which have petitioned the FCC to remove or reduce the fees and regulations around small cell installations.

Carr said as much during his speech: “The current regime is not tailored to support this type of massive, new deployment [of 5G]. It costs too much, and it takes too long. So we need to drive the unnecessary regulatory costs out of the system, and we need to speed the timeline for obtaining regulatory approvals. Indeed, I have heard from many of you that far too often exorbitant fees and lengthy timelines are preventing providers from deploying next-generation networks. That’s why I was disappointed to see, for example, that last week the Governor of California vetoed a small cell bill that garnered the support of the state’s legislature. This only increases the necessity, I think, for the FCC to take action.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last week that would have streamlined policies for small cell deployments, handing CTIA and major wireless carriers a significant defeat in the nation’s most populous state.

Carr, who was nominated to the FCC by President Trump and confirmed unanimously by the Senate in August, said that streamlining wireless infrastructure rules, thereby making it easier for wireless operators to deploy small cells, would create jobs and opportunities. “I am confident that these and other reforms will make a real difference, including in rural America. In fact, one study shows that through streamlining alone the FCC can shift the business case for entire communities. It could make it economical for the private sector to deploy 5G to nearly 15 million more homes than under the existing and more burdensome regime. The lion’s share of those would be in less densely populated areas.”

Indeed, operators across the wireless industry have bemoaned the regulations and fees they argue are hindering small cell deployments. The devices, essentially mini-cell towers that can be installed on light poles and other city infrastructure, are a key element wireless operators are using to densify their networks in preparation for 5G services.

In his speech, Carr said he would also focus on freeing up more spectrum for wireless operators and others, noting the commission has already made progress on that front with rules for 3.5 GHz spectrum and other bands. He also said that he wants to make sure that broadband providers have access to a skilled workforce to deploy networks and technologies like 5G. “While there is no direct regulatory role for the FCC here, I think we need to focus additional attention on this issue and potential solutions, including the role that apprenticeship and other job training programs can play,” Carr said. “To that end, I will be participating at an event next month at the Department of Labor on workforce development.”

Finally, Carr echoed comments by FCC Chairman Pai about streamlining FCC regulations. “A coalition that represents small and rural broadband providers recently explained that our reporting obligations alone now consume 23 weeks of work per year—or five months of full-time labor,” Carr noted. “If we can eliminate these reporting burdens, small businesses can focus even more attention on competing, growing their businesses, and serving consumers.”

Carr said the FCC should create a “deregulatory dashboard” on its website where the agency would chart the rules that it has eliminated or streamlined. “My expectation is that we will start seeing a trend line that shows the FCC continuing to bring those burdens down,” Carr said.