The new rules establish a ‘shot clock’ for the local review of small cell deployments. The FCC established similar shot clocks in 2009 for the deployment of the traditional cell tower deployments. They said then that localities had to review an application for collocating cellular infrastructure within 90 days and gave localities 150 days to review an application for placing a new cellular tower. Cities were free to reject requests if an application failed to meet local regulations and the shot clock defined the time during which a locality had to provide a response to a cellular carrier.
The FCC just set a shorter shot clock for small cell deployment, and localities now have 60 days to process an application for collocation of small cell equipment on a facility that already has similar infrastructure and 90 days to review an application for a new placement. Interestingly, in the case of small cells, those time lines are likely reversed. Cities probably have more concerns about placing multiple small cells on the same pole, yet that situation has the shortest time frame for review.
Numerous cities intervened in the docket and argued that small cell devices are not necessarily ‘small’. While many devices are the size of a pizza box (the example used by the FCC), there have been requests to place cabinets nearly the size of refrigerators on poles. The FCC resolved these issues by defining devices covered by the new rules as ‘Small Wireless Facility’ that must meet the following parameters: the pole or structure can’t be greater than 50 feet tall; the small cell device can’t add more than 10% to the height of an existing structure; the equipment can’t be larger than 28 cubic feet (excluding antennas) and an antenna can’t be more than 3 cubic feet. This limits the devices to boxes that are just a hair larger than a 3 X 3 X 3 foot cube.
The FCC also suggested limits on the fees that a city can charge for access to rights-of-way. They suggest application fees be no more than $500 per application that can include up to five small cell devices, with an additional $100 per small cell after five. The FCC also suggested a fee limit of $270 per year per small cell to cover any recurring fees including rights-of-way. The new rules say that carriers can’t challenge rates at or below these suggested limits.
The FCC new rules would allow a city to charge fees greater than these suggested limits. However, this adds a burden on the city to demonstrate that the costs are reasonable and are a reasonable approximation of actual costs. The FCC says that it would expect only ‘limited circumstances’ under which a city could charge higher rules. Many cities filed in the docket that their costs to review an application is far greater than $100 per site since they usually do a field visit for each proposed site and often hire wireless engineers to make the review.
Many municipalities in the docket cited costs higher than these FCC limits and these low fee levels are why some are calling this a multi-billion dollar giveaway to the cellular carriers. They not only get small cells deployed more quickly, but they are paying a lot less for the applications and rights-of-way fees.
It’s clear that this docket gives 5G and other small cell providers everything on their wish list. It’s been rare in the past to see FCC orders that are so blatantly in favor of one side of an issue. As a regulator the FCC is supposed to weigh the views and needs of everyone involved in a given issue and try to compromise on common ground. However, this order is entirely one-sided in favor of wireless carriers.
Nobody doubts that 5G is an interesting new technology that will bring benefits to many. However, the recently announced Verizon 5G deployments are talking about bringing broadband speeds in the range of 200-300 Mbps. Everything I read predicts that the 5G improvements to cellular speeds will be incremental over a decade and bring speeds as fast as 100 Mbps for those in areas with multiple small cells. It’s clearly unprecedented for the FCC to come out so heavily in favor of a technology before it’s even been proven in field deployment. It’s still unusual for the FCC to protect a specific technology and it would still be nice to see them make it easier to deploy fiber.
The FCC has taken sides to protect new industries before, just not so early in the game. There were rules that fostered the deployment of cable TV, of cellphone and of landline broadband – but these rules generally were issued when it became clear that the new industry needed market protections to grow and thrive. I guess it’s due to the heavy lobbying that declares that 5G will solve all of our broadband problems – but we’re too early into the new technology to know yet if that’s true.