The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is changing the rules to make it easier and less costly for wireless operators to deploy small cell sites in cities. The new ruling comes just as operators in the U.S. are ramping up to launch 5G networks later this year.
Specifically, the FCC ruled that small cell site deployments are exempt from the historical and environmental assessment reviews that are currently required before a wireless operator deploys a new tower site. This decision will not impact the reviews that towns and cities currently make about cell site deployments, but the agency has said it might revisit this in the future.
According to a recent Accenture report, the change to the FCC rules could lower deployment costs by $1.6 billion over nine years. The study found that National Historical Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NHPA/NEPA) reviews for small cells cost the wireless industry $36 million in 2017, and those reviews were projected to cost operators about $2.43 billion from 2018 to 2026.
The wireless industry lobbying group CTIA praised the FCC’s ruling and said in a statement that the action will help reduce the number of months it takes an operator to deploy 5G and will decrease the cost to build these small cells by almost one-third.
However, not everyone is thrilled with the FCC’s decision. Many local government officials are concerned that eliminating the NHPA/NEPA reviews will take away local control. Shireen Santosham, chief innovation officer for San Jose, California, told Government Technology that she sees the FCC move as a way to take away local control of the infrastructure deployment.
Nevertheless, large operators say they are working closely with cities to ensure a streamlined procedure for the deployment of all sites.
In a blog post, Joan Marsh, EVP of regulatory and state external affairs at AT&T, highlighted three cities that have streamlined their small cell siting procedures to make it easier for AT&T to deploy its 5G mobile network, which the company plans to commercially launch at year-end in about 12 cities. Those cities include Indianapolis, which has adopted a permitting process that allows small cells to be deployed in 45 to 60 days and set the maximum attachment rate at $50 per node. Marsh said AT&T has 80 small cells live in that city carrying cellular traffic.
A Verizon small cell site in Denver’s Capital Hill neighborhood.