It didn’t pass on a bipartisan basis as some had hoped, but the wireless industry is buoyed by the FCC’s decision to streamline the siting review process for next-generation wireless facilities.
Importantly, the order, which passed 3-2 along party lines, clarifies the treatment of small cells so they’re not treated the same as macro cells. The order also excludes small wireless facilities deployed on non-Tribal lands from National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, concluding that these facilities are not “undertakings” or “major federal actions.”
“The FCC’s decisive action will help America win the global 5G race by significantly reducing the number of months to deploy 5G networks and decreasing the cost to build out new small cells by almost a third,” said CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker in a press release. “The reforms will make a big difference in how quickly these more powerful networks can be installed for consumers and communities across the nation.”
“With today’s order, the FCC once again is taking the right steps to put America on pace to be the 5G leader of the world,” said AT&T Executive Vice President of Regulatory and State External Affairs Joan Marsh in a statement. “This order will modernize the environmental and historic preservation rules that were drafted decades ago for large macro cell towers, not today’s small cell infrastructure. This order recognizes the significant benefits that small cells will bring to communities across the nation and will accelerate the scale and scope of their deployments by removing excessive delays and costs.”
Will Johnson, SVP, Federal Regulatory and Legal Affairs at Verizon, said the FCC’s move will pave the way for the U.S. to lead the world in 5G. “We applaud the FCC for taking this important step today to remove significant and unnecessary regulatory obstacles for small cells and look forward to working with the Commission in the coming months to address other unnecessary state and local barriers to wireless broadband deployment,” he said. “With smart policies like these to promote 5G, U.S. carriers are poised to invest heavily to deploy 5G networks, promoting hundreds of billions of dollars in new economic activity and creating millions of new jobs. It will also bring transformative new capabilities like smart communities, e-health, connected cars, and smart farming to American consumers and businesses.”
The Competitive Carriers Association, which represents the nation's smaller operators, issued a statement last week saying it was in support of the infrastructure reforms and tweeted its appreciation today.
Rob McDowell, chief public policy adviser of Mobile Future and a former FCC commissioner, said the commission’s approval of the wireless infrastructure streamlining order is critical to secure U.S. leadership in 5G. “By easing the roadblocks in federal historic and environmental reviews processes, the Commission has taken action to significantly lower the cost to deploy small cells and quickly deliver new services to communities across America,” he said in a statement. “These commonsense reforms will help us create a clear roadmap to the economic opportunity in our 5G future.”
Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr, who played a key role on the item, said infrastructure reform only makes sense. 5G networks will look very different from the networks of today and the tall, 100-foot towers associated with current generations of wireless service will be supplemented by new small cell facilities, many of which will be no larger than a backpack.
He noted the high costs associated with NEPA and NHPA; one provider spent more than $23 million on NHPA review over the last two years—money that could have been used to deploy 657 new cell sites to expand service or add capacity. In 2017, providers spent a whopping $36 million on NHPA and NEPA reviews, according to Carr.
“The problem is getting worse, not better,” he said. “Without reform, the projected costs for these reviews will spike to $241 million this year as 5G deployments ramp up.”
Fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he wholeheartedly supported the item and thanked Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Carr for bringing it forward. He also said it addresses the unnecessary delays and outrageous fees for which he’s sought reform for years, and it's actually an effort that was started under former Chairman Tom Wheeler.
According to the majority FCC, the item clarifies and makes improvements to the process for Tribal participation in historic preservation reviews for large wireless facilities where NHPA/NEPA review is still required and removes the requirement that applicants file environmental assessments solely due to the location of a proposed facilities in a floodplain as long as certain conditions are met.
FCC Chairman Pai insisted that the commission engaged extensively with Tribal Nations, state and local historic preservation officers and others in developing the order. Tribes complained that wireless companies sometimes give them insufficient information about proposed macro tower deployments that could potentially affect historic properties. Therefore, the order requires infrastructure siting applicants to give potentially affected Tribal Nations and Native Hawaiian Organizations a standardized set of information for undertakings going forward. Providing this kind of information at the initial notification stage will enable tribes to more efficiently determine whether projects may affect historic properties of religious or cultural significance, he said.
But Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel said that while they are all for facilitating the deployment of 5G services, the order didn't go far enough to protect tribal nations and local governments.
Clyburn said she began discussing possible proposals with Commissioner Carr’s office to address her concerns but after many open and direct exchanges, they could not be addressed. She had pushed for a delay of the vote, but that didn’t happen.
Rosenworcel said the item misses the mark when it comes to providing a solution to the infrastructure challenge. “It runs roughshod over the rights of our Tribal communities and gives short shrift to our most basic environmental and historic preservation values,” she said. “Moreover, too much of its policy and legal analysis is lacking the heft necessary to support the result.”
Editor’s Note: Story updated March 23 with additional commentary.