Input sought on new siting rules that would expand broadband rollouts

The public now has a chance to comment on an FCC plan to loosen a number of siting restrictions, which, among other things, could promote the construction and rollout of small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS).

The FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in late September, and text of the NPRM was just published in the Federal Register, which means comment deadlines have finally been set. Comments are due on Feb. 3, while replies will be due on March 5.

The NPRM aims to expedite environmental and historic preservation reviews for newer technologies, including small cells and DAS. It also proposes to adopt a narrow exemption from the commission's pre-construction environmental notification requirements for certain temporary towers.

Further, the FCC is seeking comment on rules to clarify and implement Section 6409(a) of the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012. Commonly called the Spectrum Act, that section of law specifies that a state or local government "may not deny, and shall approve, any eligible facilities request for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of such tower or base station."

The commission contends that removing barriers to infrastructure deployment will spur public and private investment, while expanding wireless coverage and capacity.

Siting issues are far from unique to the United States. According to recently issued research notes from Copenhagen-based Strand Consulting, mass media and politicians tend to think better mobile coverage is simply a function of an operator's capital investments. "In fact, as our research shows, many operators cannot spend their budgeted capex because they fail to get the municipality's permission to erect the necessary masts," the firm said.

Strand cited a number of ongoing issues restricting needed site deployments, including residents' fears that nearby mobile sites will decrease property values as well as cause negative health impacts from RF energy, despite "definitive scientific studies" showing that this form of electromagnetic radiation is not a health threat. Another problem is that the mass media and consumers often do not distinguish between mobile coverage and capacity when considering the need for new mobile sites, Strand said.

The company further alleged that "politicians exploit mobile coverage as a political issue to win favor with their constituents but offer no constructive support or regulation to improve network development."

These issues have often put network deployment plans behind by months, if not years, Strand said.

Such delays are impacting not only mobile operators and their customers but mobile infrastructure providers such as Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU), Nokia (NYSE:NOK) Solutions and Networks and ZTE, which are losing revenues as siting issues curtail wireless broadband rollouts.

"The slow processing of antenna mast building applications, increasing antenna mast location rental prices and totally unreasonable demands on where operators are allowed to erect mobile network masts and antennas is not just costing a great deal of money for the mobile operators, but is also having a financial impact on the mobile network antenna infrastructure providers," Strand said.

For more:
- see this Federal Register item (PDF)
- see this Strand Consult research note and this note

Related articles:
Small cell, DAS deployments could speed up under new FCC rules
FCC's guidance on site modifications won't settle much
FCC takes multiple actions to speed up tower deployments
This industry win on tower siting is primed for debate

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