Sprint highlights small cell red tape: $90K to review 6 sites in Chicago

Sprint highlighted a small cell installation outside U.S. Bank stadium for Super Bowl LII. (Sprint)

The wireless industry has long argued for looser rules around the deployment of network infrastructure including small cells and has sought to highlight some of the local obstacles providers have encountered in their quest to build out their networks. The latest? A $90,000 fee imposed on Sprint to review six antenna sites in Chicago.

“Sprint already has antennas at those six locations but was adding additional antennas to increase capacity,” the carrier wrote in a filing to the FCC on the matter (PDF). “The project does not involve any ground disturbance. In general, macro cell collocations are exempt from historical review except when the location is in or near a historic district. These six sites are in or near historic districts even though those historic districts are not related to tribal history. Nevertheless, Commission rules require that carriers consult with tribal nations for such minor upgrades with no chance of adversely affecting tribal historic property.”

Sprint’s latest filing on the topic is just one anecdote out of thousands of small cell and antenna deployments around the country just this year. But Sprint is using the fee as a way to highlight the regulations and fees it believes are hindering its attempts to build out and improve its wireless network.

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Of course, Sprint isn’t alone on the topic. T-Mobile recently said it has deals to deploy 28,000 small cells “in the short term,” for instance, and tower company Crown Castle said last week it has built out 50,000 small cell nodes so far. But providers across the spectrum have argued that small cell deployments in general have been slowed by lengthy and expensive zoning, siting and deployment processes.

In response, the FCC voted in May to move forward with plans to make it easier for wireless carriers and their partners to deploy small cells in municipalities across the country. The agency approved “an examination of the regulatory impediments” at the state and local levels that can slow the rollout of small cells and other transmitters in an effort to streamline siting and deployment processes.

Further, the FCC’s newest commissioner, Brendan Carr, said recently that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has appointed him to take the lead on the agency’s wireless infrastructure proceeding, including for small cells.

On the other side, however, are local regulators who want to maintain control over the use of city infrastructure—including street lights and light poles—that might be used for small cell installations.