Sprint bewails $23M in ‘tribal review’ fees dragging down small cell deployments

Sprint said it paid $5,265 for tribal historic review for this pole in the sidewalk in Atlanta, Georgia. (Sprint)

Sprint said it pays an average of $8,251 in tribal review fees for every small cell it has deployed. And the company said that it has so far paid $23 million in such fees.

“Sprint has a limited capital budget and money spent on tribal review is money that is not being spent on actual deployment,” Sprint wrote in a filing with the FCC on the topic (PDF). “While Sprint respects the need to protect tribal interests, small cell deployments do not present the same concerns that were being addressed when the FCC’s rules and procedures implementing NHPA [National Historic Preservation Act] were approved in an era of macro cells and broadcast towers.”

The tribal review process is part of the NHPA, which requires wireless network operators to obtain a range of regulatory approvals before they install network equipment like small cells in specific locations. The wireless industry in general has argued that such regulations are dramatically slowing the rollout of small cells with excessive regulatory fees and lengthy approval processes.

In response, the FCC said it would look into the matter with the goal of making it easier for wireless carriers to install small cells and other network equipment as they upgrade their networks to 5G.

For its part, Sprint continues to argue that it is facing excessive fees as it works to deploy small cells.

“For example, Sprint paid $12,200 in tribal historic review fees for this new small cell outside a steel factory in East Chicago, Indiana. After paying fees to 25 tribes, they all concurred that the pole installation would not affect tribal historic properties,” the operator wrote in its latest filing with the FCC on the topic. “Sprint’s average costs for tribal review per constructed site was $8,251. Sprint’s total costs for tribal review for all small cells—including the costs for historic consultants to coordinate the reviews as well as reviews for those replacement poles and collocations that require review—exceeded $23 million and continues to increase every day.”

Added Sprint in addressing the costs for new poles: “Although the average is $8,251 per site, the actual costs vary widely across the country depending upon location. Hawaii and the West Coast are the cheapest, in the range of $500 to $2,000, while the Midwest is the most expensive. Review in Indianapolis exceeds $15,000 per site. The disparity in costs is more due to the number of tribes requesting review rather than the fee per tribe for each review.”

The issue is critical to Sprint as the operator raises its network spending in order to deploy roughly 40,000 outdoor small cell solutions, 15,000 strand-mounted small cells through the company’s partnerships with cable companies, along with the deployment of up to 1 million Sprint Magic Boxes—which are all part of the carrier’s efforts to launch mobile 5G services on its 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings on a nationwide basis in the first half of 2019.

“For every 10,000 sites that require a new pole, tribal historic review costs will exceed $82 million if the Commission does not reform infrastructure regulations,” Sprint warned.

Indeed, Sprint isn’t alone on the topic. Other industry players have complained of similar small cell rollout problems.

But AT&T said recently the situation appears to be easing, at least in select locations. For example: “Indianapolis adopted a streamlined permitting process that allows for small cell deployment in 45-60 days,” AT&T’s Joan Marsh wrote on the operator’s policy blog. Marsh's comments were aimed at local government regulations, not tribal fees, but nonetheless further highlight the process around small cell buildouts. “Moreover, the state passed small cell legislation setting a maximum attachment rate of $50 a node. Now, more than 80 small cells are on air and carrying public traffic right in the heart of the city. And the speed impacts are incredible. On the Samsung Galaxy S8—a device which takes advantage of all of the 5G Evolution technologies—customers are seeing speeds of up to 800 Mbps.”

Others, however, are arguing for continued FCC and regulator oversight of small cell installations. For example, the Kaw Nation in North Central Oklahoma said that the FCC’s Tower Construction Notification System has helped the tribe “protection of priceless cultural and historic resources.”

“Through the TCNS process, the Kaw Nation’s TCNS Administrator has been able to identify and flag a construction project that would adversely affect the Nation’s sacred ceremonial grounds,” the Kaw Nation wrote in its FCC filing (PDF). “Working together with the tower construction company, the Kaw are providing alternative locations in the vicinity for the build-out.”

Despite such issues, wireless network operators are expected to dramatically increase the number of small cells in the United States and globally in order to densify and improve their wireless networks. Indeed, according to the Small Cell Forum, annual small cell deployments will reach 11.4 million in 2025, and the installed base of small cells will reach more than 70 million globally by that time.

Article updated Feb. 22 to clarify comments from Sprint and AT&T