On April 12 the FCC issued a new Notice for Proposed Rulemaking in Docket 19-71 that will use 5G as the justification for another giveaway to the wireless carriers. Last year the FCC ordered that wireless carriers are free to put small cell sites and other wireless devices on utility poles, light poles or buildings that are in the public right-of-way. This new docket would expand some additional rights for buildings along the sides of rights-of-way. Comments will be due within 30 days of publication in the Federal Register with an additional 45 days for replay comments.
This docket requires an understanding of past orders to fully understand what is being proposed. The order would modify existing industry rules that apply to OTARDs (Over-the-Air Reception Devices). The original order on the topic was issued in 2000 and dealt with the right of consumers to connect a receiving antenna on their home to receive a wireless signal. At the time this mostly applied to satellite dishes for cable TV, but at the time there was also a budding wireless industry that was deploying WiFi mesh networks.
In the original order, the FCC said that residents, particularly renters, had the right to install receiving antenna under a twelve-inch dish size. Landlords could have some say in the placement of the dishes, but they could not deny a renter the right to receive the wireless service.
In that original order the FCC considered and rejected the idea that any OTARD installations gave the wireless carrier the right to also install a wireless repeater or other device that would re-originate the wireless signal and send it to another nearby location, such as a neighboring home. At the time such devices were relatively large and added to the bulk and appearance of a wireless receiver.
The new docket proposes to reverse part of that original order and provide rights to wireless carriers that were not included in the first order. Under the proposed rules the wireless carriers would be automatically allowed to place a repeater or other similar device anywhere they have been given permission to mount a receiver. Effectively, when a customer grants a wireless carrier the right to mount a receiver on their home, they will also be conveying ‘ownership rights’ to the carrier for that small portion of their building.
Unlike in 2000 when repeaters were bulky, the repeaters used for millimeter wave radios are tiny and can easily be incorporated in any receiving dish. Very few homeowners or apartment owners will know or care that an active receiving antenna is also being used to bounce a signal to a neighboring customer. However, the controversy will arise when a customer stops using a wireless service and wants to take down the antenna. According to this new docket, that little circle of real estate around the receiver would now belong to the wireless carrier instead of the home or apartment owner and the carrier could insist that it stays in place.
The wireless carriers want this right due to the physics of delivering 5G using millimeter wave spectrum. Both lab tests and reports from the early 5G deployments from Verizon show that local obstructions can easily block a millimeter wave signal coming from a pole-mounted transmitter. However, a home that can’t get a clear shot from the pole unit might instead be able to get a clear signal that is bounced from a neighbor’s home. This kind of mesh network is going to be an integral part of distributing 5G broadband from poles.
This is clearly another land grab by the wireless carriers. If a customer disconnects service, they are likely to want to take down an unused antenna. This docket would give the wireless carrier the right to claim access to the area that was occupied by the former receiver. It’s not hard to picture the numerous disagreements and fights this will result from this order.
However, it’s also easy to sympathize with the wireless carriers. If a customer that is near to a pole drops service, the ISP might lose several other customers that relied on a signal from the disconnecting home. I can easily envision the controversies that will happen in neighborhoods if customers lose service due to an action taken by one of their neighbors. It’s not even hard to envision a homeowner taking down an antenna just to spite a neighbor.
This is ultimately an issue of authority. Many cities are already suing the FCC over the last wireless ruling saying that the placement of electronics in the right-of-way is a matter of local jurisdiction, not federal. The FCC’s authority seems even sketchier when extended to any home or structure within a thousand feet of a wireless transmitter. Can a wireless carrier be allowed to carve out a small piece of real estate on a building in perpetuity simply because that building once subscribed to a wireless service? Should the homeowner expect compensation for use of that real estate (like has been ordered by pole owners). Would a homeowner be expected to power a repeater when they no longer recieve service?
The FCC is clearly in favor of giving the authority to wireless carriers to deploy as they see fit. I am fairly certain that these issues are going to be resolved ultimately in the courts.