Clearing The Barriers To Critical Communications Infrastructure

April 20, 2017

By Robert McDowell, Chief Public Policy Officer

On April 20, under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission launched a landmark proceeding aimed at jumpstarting billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in wireless networks. As a former FCC commissioner, I commend Chairman Pai, as well as Commissioners Clyburn and O’Rielly, for their foresight in taking this action, which should lead to enormous benefits for U.S. consumers and the economy.

Infrastructure is not only about roads, bridges and airports. Equally important is America’s wireless communications infrastructure – the networks of antennas, fiber and other equipment that connect all Americans.

Those networks will consist of hundreds of thousands (even millions) of very small antennas, no more than a few feet in size, attached to streetlights and utility poles along streets and highways. These “small cells” don’t pose the same issues for communities that tall cell towers did, and fit well with the utility poles and other equipment that already exist on the nation’s roads.

We all increasingly depend on our wireless devices and on broadband networks. Four out of five Americans have smartphones (up from just one in five in 2009) and rely on them to apply for jobs, learn about health care benefits, pursue an education, and stay connected with friends and family. Fifth-generation, or “5G,” wireless services will enable cities to deploy “smart” technologies, improve highway safety, unleash the Internet of Things, and enable consumers and businesses to take advantage of other innovations that will preserve America’s world-leading role in wireless broadband. In a recent study, Accenture estimated that investment in 5G could be $275 billion over the next decade, leading to three million new jobs and boosting the U.S. GDP by half a trillion dollars.

But these benefits squarely depend on new small cell networks to supply the capacity to meet the public’s sharply increasing reliance on wireless broadband. Although many cities are embracing small cells as the key to unlocking their broadband future, others are imposing barriers that are stopping the construction of this new infrastructure in its tracks. These barriers include exorbitant “rents” designed to profit from growing demand rather than to recoup a city’s costs to oversee deployment, long processing delays, moratoria, and prescriptive regulations that stop deployment. Information provided to the FCC shows these obstacles to investment are being imposed nationwide, including cities and other local entities that:

  • refuse all requests to build small cells;
  • enact moratoria that completely block all new deployments;
  • require all equipment to be underground – a physical impossibility for wireless networks;
  • first set a $1,000 annual fee for each small cell but later hiked the fee to $10,000, explaining that the amount was revised to reflect market rates for annual rents received in other cities in the state;
  • demand a percentage of a wireless provider’s revenues – even though such a fee is unrelated to the actual use of local streets;
  • impose a $20,000 fee for each pole that holds a small cell, meaning millions of dollars in fees that far exceed any costs the county may incur; and
  • have held up approval of needed small cell facilities for more than three years.

In addition to these specific examples, nearly half of the cities where one wireless provider sought to build small cells have taken more than five months to review them – longer than the timeline I helped the FCC set years ago for cities to review large cell towers.

The FCC is rightly focused on what it can do to streamline building critically needed broadband infrastructure. All three commissioners, both Republican and Democratic, recognize that existing wireless networks are approaching their capacity and urgently need to be expanded to meet the public’s exploding demand. As Chairman Pai said in a March 29 speech, the FCC “seeks to eliminate unnecessary barriers to infrastructure investment that could stifle broadband deployment.” As Commissioner Clyburn stated, “In order to reap the benefits of 5G services, we need to not only have adequate spectrum but the necessary infrastructure ….” As Commissioner O’Rielly testified at the House of Representatives’ March 8 FCC oversight hearing, “Standing in the way of greater Internet access nationwide are barriers imposed by state, local and tribal entities. This problem will become even more acute as providers seek to deploy the next generation, or 5G wireless services ….”

Local governments do need to manage the use of their streets to protect public safety by, for example, determining where new poles and small cells can be installed, and ensuring that where existing poles are used, they can physically hold the new small cells. But they can fully discharge that responsibility without imposing the exorbitant fees, long delays, and regulatory obstacles that are suppressing investment in needed new infrastructure.

Taking decisive, comprehensive action to clear away the counterproductive barriers that are frustrating needed new infrastructure will help secure America’s leadership role in 5G, generate jobs, and strengthen the economy. The FCC should move ahead with these much-needed ideas as fast as possible.