Major U.S. cities revolt against FCC’s proposed small cell deployment rules

Verizon small cell in Sacramento (Verizon)
Operators like Verizon are working to densify their networks with small cells, which are essentially mini cell towers that can be installed on top of light poles, traffic lights and other locations. (Verizon)

A large number of U.S. cities, both big and small, voiced concerted and coordinated opposition to the FCC’s proposal to streamline the deployment of small cells across the country.

At the center of the issue is the federal government’s attempts to override local government control over the installation of wireless equipment like small cells in neighborhoods around the country. The FCC essentially argues that some state and city rules are unnecessarily impeding the deployment of wireless infrastructure, including 5G. But a large number of U.S. cities are fighting back against that argumentcontending that they should remain in charge of the costs and timelines associated with small cell deployments.

Cities speaking up on the issue range from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Chicago to Lakewood, California, and Yuma, Arizona. The filings by the cities generally follow the same format and present the same basic arguments:

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  • The FCC’s proposed new collocation shot clock category “is too extreme.”

  • The FCC’s proposed definition of “effective prohibition” is overly broad.

  • The FCC’s proposed recurring fee structure is an “unreasonable overreach that will harm local policy innovation,” and the fees are not “fair and reasonable” compensation.

“While promoting broadband technology and development remains an essential City initiative, it is critically important for municipalities such as Philadelphia to balance these goals with the ability to regulate and manage the public ROW [right of way],” the city of Philadelphia wrote to the FCC this week. “The City’s ability to manage its ROW is essential in order to effectively protect the health, safety and welfare of the City’s over 1.5 million residents and 43 million annual visitors.”

Even the mayor of Los Angeles stepped into the issue, writing that the FCC’s proposed ruleswhich the commission is scheduled to vote on next weekwould “insert confusion into the market, and sow mistrust between my technology team and the carriers with whom we have already reached agreements.”

Continued the mayor: “The Commission, while staying true to its commitment to promote 5G deployment, could avoid marketplace confusion by simply grandfathering in any proposal or formal agreement entered into prior to the effective date of the order. Alternatively, the Commission can stay the adoption of such an order until the Commission has allowed for a one-year period or sufficient time to permit local authorities to enter into such agreements with the telecommunications industry, as we have done and will continue to do with the other carriers at the City of Los Angeles.”

The comments by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are particularly noteworthy considering the wireless industry has generally cited the city as a suitable partner for smart city and 5G deployments. Indeed, T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon all plan to launch 5G in Los Angeles in the coming months, and the GSMA recently held its MWC Americas trade show in the heart of the city.

In a recent interview on the topic, the fiber and right-of-way manager for the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, argued that the wireless industry is essentially attempting to get the federal government to give network operators a discount on access to city infrastructure so that operators don’t have to pay higher prices to deploy their equipment on privately owned infrastructure. “If AT&T and Verizon want to go purchase private easements, they generally do it at 50% less of what the city pays for a public right of way,” said Lincoln’s David Young. “It's quite a bit of difference in price for what cities pay for rights of way versus what private companies pay for private easements.”

Added Young: “The other issue is that by creating these submarket rates, you're really putting the government, the city, a taxpayer in competition with private asset owners. … We think that's unfair. It can be usedPut their antenna on a building. Great. Do it. They do it all the time. The challenge here is by doing these submarket rates, we're really—they're trying to force the city to undercut private infrastructure owners and we disagree with that completely.”

Young’s comments are noteworthy considering both AT&T and Verizon both targeted Lincoln as a city that was charging exorbitant fees for small cell deployments. The city rejected those arguments in its recent filing to the FCC, contending instead that the FCC’s proposed rules would “restrict local authority, stymie local innovation, and subsidize small cell broadband providers while limiting the obligations providers have to our community.”

Further, Young is the vice chairman of the FCC's Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC), which was tasked with finding a balance between the needs of cities and telecom providers. Some BDAC members continue to complain that the group isn't reflecting the needs of local government.

John Davis, the manager of the Borough of Doylestown in Pennsylvania, pointed out in a recent interview that the FCC’s rules would aid the wireless industry by allowing carriers to deal with one single entitythe city governmentto deploy small cells, instead of having to deal with multiple private land owners. But he also said that Doylestown would adjust its approach to the issue based on whatever rules the state and federal government decided on, and he also acknowledged that the installation of equipment like small cells does benefit Doylestown residents with better wireless service.

However, David said the situation is “nuanced” and that local officials often have the best grasp of how and when network equipment should be deployed. “Quite frankly local communities are closest to the public,” he said. “They know the specific local issues and nuances that can be addressed.”

Davis said that, in recent years, the city worked with Crown Castle and others on a small cell deployment. Crown Castle initially wanted to deploy the gadgets in dozens of locations around the city, including directly in front of a 19th-century castle museum called the Mercer Museum. The city initially balked, Davis said, because the deployment could affect the aesthetics of the tourist location.

“Our goal was never to stop this happening,” he said. “It was to try to change what the applicant was proposing, understand what they needed versus what they wanted. Apply that to our own particular community and come out with something that gave them what they needed and gave them what was fair to us. I think the processalthough certainly a lot more difficult to the applicants than would have been a blanket permission with a $25 fee per poleallowed them ultimately to do what they wanted to do. It respected most of their parameters, even some of them that we felt didn't necessarily need to as much as want to.”

Concluded Davis of the city’s work with Crown Castle and others: “Ultimately, it's a better system for everyone having gone through the process.”

Not surprisingly, the wireless industry has generally voiced full-throated support for the FCC’s new proposal. The agency’s rules have been promoted by Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has argued that they strike a balance between speeding deployments, city regulations and aesthetics, and existing legislation on the topic. Specifically Carr has said that:

  1. The rules won’t disturb existing small cell legislation at the state level but will provide guidance on local reviews of small cells that can inhibit deployment.

  2. State governments can charge wireless providers for the costs associated with reviewing small cell deployment, but the FCC’s rules will prohibit what Carr described as excessive fees.

  3. Local governments will need to conduct approval processes within 60 days for small cells being added to existing structures and 90 days when a provider wants to put up a new small cell pole.

  4. Local governments will be able to manage small cell deployments via “reasonable” aesthetic reviews.

“CTIA highlighted that the Draft Order and Ruling will further speed deployment and reduce siting costs,” wrote the wireless industry’s trade association this week. “The Commission’s approach also builds from valuable lessons learned in the 20 states that have taken forward-thinking steps to modernize their infrastructure siting policies. And importantly, updating the nationwide framework for wireless facility deployment, including for small wireless facilities in particular, will accelerate investment to the benefit of our economy, businesses, and consumers without undermining the important role that states and localities play in the siting process.”

Added T-Mobile in its own filing: “The Draft Item carefully balances interests and provides useful parameters for consideration of other requirements applicable to deployments. The Draft Item balances localities’ role in overseeing deployment, including the impact on aesthetics that such deployment may have, with the goal of promoting broadband deployment.”