FCC approves new rules aimed at speeding deployment of small cells and 5G

AT&T small cell (AT&T)
Operators have been working to install small cells on light poles and other neighborhood infrastructure. (AT&T)

The FCC voted to approve rules aimed at speeding up the deployment of small cells and other 5G network equipment by regulating in part the fees and timelines cities and states can impose on wireless network operators and other wireless players.

The agency passed the rules with all commissioners voting in support, though Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel approved in part and dissented in part.

Commissioner Brendan Carr has been promoting the rules in four key parts:

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  1. The rules won’t disturb existing small cell legislation at the state level but will provide guidance on local reviews of small cells that can inhibit deployment.

  2. State governments can charge wireless providers for the costs associated with reviewing small cell deployment, but the FCC’s rules will prohibit what Carr described as excessive fees.

  3. Local governments will need to conduct approval processes within 60 days for small cells being added to existing structures and 90 days when a provider wants to put up a new small cell pole.

  4. Local governments will be able to manage small cell deployments via “reasonable” aesthetic reviews.

In a statement released immediately after the vote, Carr said: “In the global race to 5G, the stakes are high—it is about economic leadership for the next decade. The smart infrastructure policies we adopt today strengthen America’s role as a tech and economic leader, while ensuring that every community benefits from 5G. Wireless providers are projected to spend $275 billion in the U.S. to build 5G, which represents a massive private sector investment in American infrastructure and jobs—without a penny of new taxes. Today’s order streamlines the approval process for 5G small cells and helps ensure that our country will continue to be the innovation hub of the world.”

Others also voiced their support for the vote. “The FCC’s action today addresses key obstacles to deploying 5G across the country by reducing unnecessary government red tape,” said TIA’s SVP of government affairs, Cinnamon Rogers. “By adopting this important wireless infrastructure order, the Commission is taking commonsense steps to fulfill its longstanding mission to ensure that consumers and businesses have access to high-speed broadband across America’s major cities, suburban and rural communities. Next-generation wireless will serve to expand the reach of internet services that are improving people’s lives through access to education, healthcare and more. TIA applauds the FCC’s leadership and its continued work to secure America’s leadership in the global race to 5G.”

The issue has been fraught with conflict. On one side sit wireless industry officials and others, who argue that onerous fees and timelines imposed by some cities and states are slowing the rollout of 5G network technology. On the other side sit officials from states and cities that argue the federal government should not overstep its authority and create rules about how small cells and other 5G network equipment should be installed in neighborhoods around the country.

RELATED: Major U.S. cities revolt against FCC’s proposed small cell deployment rules

And in recent days, the issue has seen some high-powered lobbying. For example, as reported by Cnet, nine Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the FCC this week requesting that the agency postpone its vote, arguing that the proposed rules could "stifle local policy innovation, including efforts to bridge the digital divide."

Separately, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler also voiced some oblique opposition to the rules, writing: “let’s stop using the so-called ‘5G race’ as a tool to ride roughshod over maintaining competitive markets, local self-determination, or as a get-rich-quick scheme for spectrum licensees.”

On the other side, FCC commissioners Ajit Pai and Brendan Carr pointed to letters of support from local lawmakers stretching from Missouri to Florida.