Editor's Corner—Carriers must tread carefully with small cells despite policy wins

small cells
No one is opposed to small cells in concept. But mobile operators that draw the ire of local activist groups and residents by deploying unsightly and annoying small cells will get a black eye regardless of what the law allows.
Colin Gibbs Editor's Corner

The wireless industry spent much of this week pushing regulators and policymakers to make it easier for network operators to roll out small cells, and it appeared to have scored a big win in California this week as legislators greenlighted a bill that would essentially overrule pushback from local authorities and community groups.

But network operators and their partners should tread carefully as they densify their networks in the Golden State.

Public policy was a major focal point of Mobile World Congress Americas in San Francisco this week, and small cells dominated those conversations. Concerns regarding siting and approval processes have become a top priority for carriers that have become increasingly focused on small cells as they look to densify their networks to increase capacity and improve coverage.

The antennas, which can be as small as a lunchbox, can be placed on “street furniture” such as lampposts or traffic lights as well as on the sides of buildings or other private property.

The need ‘to speed this thing along’

Charles McKee, Sprint’s VP of government affairs for federal and state regulatory, detailed multiple obstacles Sprint has encountered as it worked to deploy small cells and other network elements during a panel discussion at MWC Americas this week.

“We’re going to have to find new ways to speed this thing along,” McKee said this week. His thoughts were echoed by many executives at the conference, including Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure.

“We’ve got to find a solution and fast (for small cells) if we want to continue being a leader,” Claure opined during his keynote presentation. “I think it is so important for the U.S. government … once and for all to get our act together.”

Claure and his rivals appeared to gain significant ground this week when California lawmakers approved new rules for small cells following months of lobbying by carriers and local authorities. The bill—SB 649—would essentially give wireless companies the same rights as public utilities. It would enable carriers and infrastructure vendors to place transmitters in public rights-of-way, and would cap fees cities could charge to install their devices.

More than 200 California cities and counties oppose the bill, which must be signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to become law. It isn’t clear whether Brown will sign off on the legislation.

What is clear, though, is that wireless carriers and their partners continue to gain legislative momentum when it comes to small cells. Roughly a dozen states have already passed similar legislation to ease small-cell deployments, and the FCC appears eager to intervene on the federal level under Chairman Ajit Pai.

Abusing the system—or lack thereof

The problem, of course, is that carriers and their partners have abused the system—or, more accurately, the lack of a system—for too long. “Small cells” are sometimes attached to new poles that can reach 20 feet or higher, and they sometimes require noisy fans to keep them cool. And while they’re often deployed in municipal rights-of-way, that real estate is often extremely close to residences.

The benefits of small cells are clear even to most luddites: They enable service providers to increase capacity and provide better coverage, enabling customers to access wireless data more easily and quickly than they could have previously. To put it simply, no one is opposed to small cells in concept.

But the U.S. wireless market is more competitive than it has been in years, and it’s positioned to become even more heated as cable companies and perhaps even other newcomers enter the space. Mobile operators that draw the ire of local activist groups and residents by deploying unsightly and annoying small cells will get a black eye regardless of what the law allows. And that could give their competitors a leg up as the market becomes increasingly crowded. – Colin | @colin_gibbs