The Battle Over Small Cell Deployment

Governor Jerry Brown of California recently vetoed a bill, SB 649, that would have given wireless carriers cheap and easy access to poles. He said the bill was too much in the favor of the wireless companies and that a more balanced solution is needed.

This law highlights the legislative efforts of the cellular industry and the big telcos working to deploy 5G networks who want cheap and fast access to poles. There were similar pushes in many state legislative bodies this past year including in Texas, Florida and Washington. I think we can expect this to appear in many more state legislatures next year. This is obviously a big priority for the carriers who reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying for this in the recent legislative sessions.

It’s not hard to understand why the carriers want a legislative solution, because the alternative is the regulatory path. This is a complicated issue and the carriers know that if they try to get this through state regulatory commissions that it will take a long time and that regulators are likely to provide a balanced solution that the carriers don’t want.

There is one regulatory push on the issue and the FCC is considering it. The FCC voted in May to begin an investigation on the issues involved. One of the things they are examining are the regulatory impediments at the state and local levels that affect the issue. But the carriers know that the FCC path is a slow one. First, any FCC decision is likely to be challenged in court, a tactic that the carriers themselves often use to slow down the regulatory process. But there is also a big jurisdictional question, because today the states have the authority to override FCC rules concerning pole issues.

The issue is important because it’s at the heart of the hottest area of telecom growth in the deployment of mini-cell sites and the upcoming deployment of the various kinds of 5G. Not only do the carriers need to deploy millions of such connections to implement the networks they are promising to stockholders, but they also will have to be building a lot of new fiber to support the new wireless deployments.

It’s easy to sympathize with the carriers. I’ve herd the horror stories of it taking two years to get a wireless attachment approved in some cities, which is an obvious impediment to any sensible business plan deployment. But as is typical with these carriers, rather than asking for sensible rule changes that everybody can agree on they are promoting plans that are heavily lopsided in their favor. They want to deploy wireless devices using a method they are calling one-touch – which they interpret to mean installing devices on poles and telling the pole owner after it’s done. They also want these connections for dirt cheap. And they don’t want to have to be concerned with the safety issues involved in adding boxes and live electric connections into the mix of wires on existing poles.

The issue is interesting from the perspective of small CLECs and fiber overbuilders because small carriers have been yelling for years about the problems associated with getting access to poles – and nobody has been listening. In fact, one of the big proponents of the legislative process is AT&T, which is still fighting Google and others about getting access to AT&T poles. It’s not surprising to see that the proposed new laws favor wireless deployments without necessarily making it any easier for fiber overbuilders.

Since the carriers are throwing a lot of money at this it certainly seems likely that they will win this issue in some states. There are a number of states where the lobbying money of the big carriers has always gotten the carriers what they wanted. But there are plenty of states where this won’t pass, and so we are likely going to end up with a hodgepodge of rules, state by state, on the issue.

I’m not even sure where I stand on the issue. As a consumer I want to see advanced wireless technologies deployed. But as a homeowner I don’t necessarily want to see an ugly proliferation of big boxes on poles everywhere. And I certainly don’t want to see 120-foot poles deployed in my neighborhood and the trees decimated to accommodate line-of-sight wireless connections to homes. And as somebody who mostly works for smaller carriers I’m naturally biased against anything that benefits the big carriers over everybody else. I don’t know if there is a better indication about how complicated this is when somebody with my knowledge has mixed feelings about the issue.

2 thoughts on “The Battle Over Small Cell Deployment

  1. I’ve also heard that some of these one-touch deployments can be unreliable. Some of the carriers clamp these cells to the telephone wires; sometimes they get blown around in the wind and end up facing the wrong way and offering poor connectivity. Still technical issues to overcome

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    • You are right. The problems most often come when existing ISPs subcontract out to construction companies that are paid by the completed construction unit (such as a pole connection). Unfortunately we have seen some contractors take lots of short cuts to maximize their profit, but which ends is creating future problems for everybody else using the pole.

      The best way around this is to only allow contractors to do work on poles that have been approved by all parties.

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