FCC's O'Rielly urges new rules for small-cell deployments at WIS 2017

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The FCC is considering drafting new rules to ease small-cell deployments at the local level.

ORLANDO, Florida—FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly used the 2017 Wireless Infrastructure Show to once again push for reforms to ease the rollout of small cells.

U.S. operators are increasingly looking to small cells to improve coverage and—more importantly—to increase capacity in advance of 5G buildouts as data consumption continues to soar. The antennas, which can be as small as lunchboxes, can be placed on “street furniture” such as lampposts or traffic lights as well as on the sides of buildings or other objects. And they sometimes require the installation of new poles that can be 120 feet or taller.

But zoning and permitting headaches have slowed the small cell market. Some municipalities are fighting small cell deployments based on concerns over aesthetics, noise, rights-of-way issues and other worries, and some critics said local governments simply view the transmitters as a way to fill their coffers through application fees and other charges.

“Despite efforts to curb such behavior, the industry is still experiencing excessive delays and moratoria when filing siting applications for access to locality rights of way,” O’Rielly told attendees during a keynote speech (PDF) at the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s annual conference. “The record is replete with reports of long preapplication processes before an application can be filed, or is deemed complete, and applications are going through two years or more of review before a decision is actually made. These long, intentional delays also turning into de factor moratoria, with endless tolling agreements and excuses about insufficient resources or the need for new local laws."

“Verizon, for instance, has reported that at least 34 communities either have explicit moratoria or just refuse to process applications or engage with applicants,” O’Rielly continued. “This is blatantly illegal.”

The FCC last month moved forward with plans to make it easier for carriers and their partners to roll out small cells, approving “an examination of the regulatory impediments (PDF)” at the state and local levels that can slow the rollout of small cells and other transmitters in an effort to streamline zoning, permitting and siting challenges.

The agency is currently seeking comment on ways to improve rules and processes at the local, state and federal level, and will examine FCC rules for procedures for historic preservation and environmental review.

Meanwhile, the wireless industry is backing legislation in at least 20 states this year, according to a recent report from NPR, that would grant small cell vendors easier access to “street furniture” like streetlights and utility poles. Legislation on the topic is moving forward in Arizona, Colorado and Virginia, among other states, and last year Kansas and Ohio passed laws to address the matter.

Those efforts are drawing pushback from local governing boards, though. The Daily News of Palm Beach, Florida, reported last month that Mayor Gail Coniglio is lobbying against multiple bills she said undermine “home rule,” using broad legislation to remove power from local agencies.

Both O’Rielly and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are strongly in favor of adopting rules to ease small-cell deployments, although it isn’t clear exactly how much power the agency might be able to exert at the local level. But O’Rielly said the FCC may work with Congress to implement federal rules to address some concerns.