Ahead of FCC vote, wireless industry tallies ‘excessive’ small cell deployment fees

Crown Castle small cell vs tower (Crown Castle)
Small cells are essentially mini cellular towers that can be installed on light poles and other objects. (Image: Crown Castle)

The FCC is scheduled later this month to vote on new rules designed to smooth the deployment of small cells for LTE and 5G, primarily by reducing fees local governments and other entities can levy against those buildouts. And, according to a variety of wireless players, those fees are “excessive,” to say the least.

“CTIA’s member companies and others in the wireless industry have put forth various examples of the significant costs associated with compliance with the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] and NHPA [National Historic Preservation Act] requirements imposed under the Commission’s rules,” wrote wireless industry trade group CTIA in a recent filing to the FCC on the topic. “For example, Sprint recently reported that the total costs it incurred for Tribal review of small cells over the last two years exceeded $23 million. Verizon estimated that NEPA and NHPA reviews, including Tribal reviews, comprised, on average, 26 percent of its total small cell deployment costs in 2017. And AT&T recently predicted that it will spend roughly $45 million this year on NEPA and NHPA compliance—resources that could otherwise have been directed toward broadband deployment.”

In their efforts to encourage the commission to reduce the fees associated with small cell buildouts, wireless players across the industry offered specific examples of the charges they’ve faced in their deployment efforts:

  • AT&T said 36 tribes assessed $13,525 to review a collocation on a Marriott hotel in Hannepin, Minnesota.
  • Uniti Fiber said that, in order to install a small cell node in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, it received requests from 42 different tribes, with review fees totaling over $15,500.
  • One CCA member said it paid over $107,000 to 36 tribes for the deployment of seven towers in a seven-month period.
  • Sprint said its tribal fees totaled $173,305 for the deployment of 23 cell sites around NRG Stadium in Houston prior to the 2017 Super Bowl.
  • And T-Mobile and Crown Castle said that, in Houston, tribal consultation fees were estimated at nearly $8 million for one project involving the placement of approximately 1,260 new poles in the right-of-way where the ground had been previously disturbed.

The wireless industry for years has argued that small cell deployments are necessary to improve wireless networks, keep up with user demands, and to pave the way for 5G networks. However, the small cell push has generated some concerns among city officials and others worried that their cities and towns will become overrun with telecom equipment on every street corner and light pole.

“It is deeply disingenuous to suggest that the need to pre-empt urban areas’ ordinances is so we can bring broadband to rural areas,” Mitsuko R. Herrera, a special projects director in Maryland’s Montgomery County, told The New York Times in a lengthy article on the topic. “There is zero evidence to support that premise.”

Further, as the NYT noted, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo—an outspoken opponent of expanded small cell deployments—recently resigned from the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) because he said the committee was furthering the “interests of the telecommunications industry over the public interest."

On March 22, the FCC is scheduled to consider an order that would “clarify and modify the procedures for NHPA and NEPA review of wireless infrastructure deployments.”

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who was assigned to the small cell topic by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, outlined the Republican-controlled agency’s small cell proposal in a recent speech in Washington, D.C.

“First, the proposed order would modernize our approach to small cell deployments, reflecting the very different impact that these deployments entail. It would determine that they are not ‘federal undertakings’ or ‘major federal actions.’ In other words, small cell deployments would no longer be subject to the federal historic or environmental review process designed for macrocell towers,” he said. “Rather, these deployments will now have the same status under the law as that of Wi-Fi routers, consumer signal boosters, and similar unlicensed equipment—none of which have ever been subject to the type of federal processes that we have been applying to small cells.”

Carr added: “It simply no longer makes sense from either a legal or policy perspective to treat these small-scale deployments the same as large macrocell towers, which have a very different footprint and impact. So if the antenna associated with a deployment fits within 3 cubic feet, it is a small facility and can proceed without the need for federal NEPA or NHPA review.”

Carr also said the FCC’s proposal would update the tribal review process to eliminate upfront fees, create a timeline for deployments, and remove deployments below 100 feet from review. He also said that, for traditional large cell deployments, the agency’s order would “revise” the FCC’s approach to environmental review procedures.

“Our updated approach to small cells could reduce the regulatory costs of deployment by 80%, while cutting deployment timelines by more than half,” Carr said in his speech, citing AT&T’s figures on the topic. “The resulting cost savings, the record shows, can be used to deploy more small cells and thus bring 5G coverage to even more Americans. Indeed, these reforms will likely result in the deployment of several thousand additional small cells across the country in the next 12 months.”