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October 3, 2016

Local Communities & Networks Struggle With Small Cell Deployments

There has been much discussion recently on the industry’s push toward small cell technologies to bolster, and eventually replace, the 3G and 4G technologies widely deployed by network operators. As the name implies, small cells promise a smaller footprint, less equipment, reduced equipment investment and faster implementations. The network operator perceives this as an opportunity to provide more bandwidth and service to mobile customers. A local community resident may view this as a proliferation of ugly radio antennas and cell sites. The mobile user regards it as an opportunity for better wireless performance. The local government official may see small cells as an opportunity for more tower rent revenue. The common issue is that each of these stakeholders must be mindful of the others’ desires and needs.

The FCC began seeing growing demand for more bandwidth and network performance, and sought to support network operators by issuing an order in 2012 to accelerate network deployment under the Spectrum Act. As can be expected, legislation can’t be introduced without causing some confusion amongst both network operators and local governments. In 2014, the FCCissued an order attempting to clarify Section 6409(a) of the Act. In short, Section 6409(a) attempts to promote network deployment by limiting a local government’s ability to deny construction permit applications that seek to modify existing wireless equipment facilities. The language in this section basically states that if an application for a wireless permit is not approved or denied within 60 days, the application can be deemed accepted.

As we are all aware, public opinion regarding large company and/or federal government interventions into their local governments can become contentious. Historically, an important interest of local city residents has been to minimize the number of large macro cell towers erected in their town and to reduce their unsightly visual impact. Local planning and permitting commissions have traditionally been interested in the potential revenues that towers can generate, beneficial for smaller cities whose budgets are challenged by shrinking revenues and growing budgets. Voters monitor government decisions through the ballet box, and their concerns must be considered. At the same same time, however, local residents are demanding more network capacity and wireless services. Where will these trends take us?

At CTIA’s recent Super Mobility event, one session included a panel of three attorneys who specialize in representing either network operators or local governments when small cell network expansion problems arise. Their observations were insightful. First, they felt the trend in most communities will be for local residents to become more conscious of both their demand for more wireless services and their displeasure for increased tower presence. The fact remains that they cannot have both at the same time, compromise may be needed. Additionally, they argued that large cities are more likely to embrace small cell expansion since these municipalities have the budgets, staffing, foresight and the plans to integrate expanded wireless services into their city’s resident and visitor experience. In short, permitting in these cities can be reasonably easy and fast. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the small town. Unfortunately, many small towns are under-staffed and their wireless infrastructures under-planned, while the town itself experiences severe budget constraints. This creates an environment where permitting can be difficult and slow at times. The vast majority of the American population resides in the middle – the proverbial suburb. Here permitting can run through the widest range of experiences from easy to difficult and fast to slow. It all depends upon the particular government’s resources, knowledge of how wireless affects the city and how well residents perceive the implications (more service capacity versus the possibility of reduced visual aesthetics of more towers).

The question is why does any of this matter if the FCC issued a ruling that enables the network operator to achieve permit approval via time default? Well, nothing is that easy in this litigious society. The consensus opinion of the CTIA panel of attorneys was that honest, open and timely communication between government agencies and network operators is the best and most efficient method to get building permits processed through cities. Relying on litigation and challenging of the Spectrum Act should only be used as a last-ditch effort to resolve very difficult issues. It is not prudent to quickly deploy small cell networks regardless how the law is interpreted, sidestepping the permitting process. After all, a goal of the permitting process is to allow people to work with others to reach a reasonable resolution for the betterment of the general public.

Small cell deployments will inevitably become more prolific across cities, towns and suburbs in America. Challenges will accompany progress though. A significant hurdle to overcome for small cell projects will be to gain consesus amongst the communities hungry for increased network bandwidth, leary of unsightly equipment and network operators.

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