Small Cells, Big Opportunities
Small Cells, Big Opportunities
By: Steven K. Berry, President & CEO, CCA and Maribeth Collins, Director of Legislative Affairs, CCA
Americans dream big, think big, and believe big. It’s in our collective cultural DNA to play to the largest crowds, build to the highest heights, and innovate with the masses in mind. But from the beginning of our nation, we have learned that to think big, you have to start small.
The fundamentals and foundations of deploying wireless networks across our vast country started small. Today and tomorrow, small cell mobile wireless technology will connect Americans where they live, work, and play. These very same technologies will help usher in the next generation of wireless connectivity. Wireless companies across the U.S. seeking to upgrade and improve their networks with the latest, most innovative technology will use small cell technology to connect both urban and rural Americans.
Small cells and Distributed Antenna Systems (“DAS”) are materially different than their macro cell predecessors, in terms of their size and visual or actual impact. Instead of the giant, unmistakable tower that ubiquitously comes to mind when thinking of wireless construction, small cells are often the size of backpacks and are attached to existing structures. They complement the macro network, strengthening the overall system in designated areas. It is a misconception that this technology only will benefit urban environments and consumers. CCA’s members serving some of the most rural parts of the country use small cells to enhance coverage in county seats, schools, sporting events, and meeting and recreation centers.
Eliminating Duplicative and Redundant Review Actions
Unfortunately, the process to site wireless infrastructure is a complicated, and barriers to deployment loom large. Carriers face a maze of regulatory requirements at the federal, state, and local levels, and find themselves facing the same bureaucratic hurdles to site small wireless facilities on existing structures as they do for the largest ones. This inconsistency creates uncertainty and limits network deployment, delaying consumer connectivity.
Earlier this year, 23 non-nationwide wireless carriers wrote to the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) requesting streamlined infrastructure reform that reflects the advancement of technology. They asked the FCC to declare that “small cells and DAS technology do not require duplicate and redundant review actions which slow or cease mobile infrastructure deployments.” They also asked the Commission to adopt targeted policy reforms that streamline historic and environmental application review processes.
A month later, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) introduced the bicameral Reducing Antiquated Permitting for Infrastructure Deployments (RAPID) Act, directing the FCC to review outdated, overly cumbersome regulations that deter timely approval of broadband deployment. The RAPID Act requires the FCC to reexamine and revise deployments subject to review by the National Historic Preservation Act (“NHPA”), and the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”). The Act puts a 180-day shot clock on proposed broadband projects, requiring definitive action during critical steps of the federal approval process, and injecting much needed certainty for carriers into a notoriously convoluted process.
Congress and the FCC have been providing numerous bipartisan solutions, like the RAPID Act, to streamline and, in some instances, expedite the federal siting processes for mobile broadband deployment.
Upon introduction of the RAPID Act, Senator Moran and Congressman Scalise stressed the importance of updating federal regulations to ever-advancing technology. “The most responsible and effective way to close the growing digital gap is to grant broadband providers the opportunity to advance deployment projects without having to deal with unnecessarily complicated and duplicative federal mandates,” said Sen. Moran. Congressman Scalise stated that “Federal regulations that deal with broadband deployment need to be streamlined to reflect modern technology while also protecting consumers, and doing so will ensure that America will remain the world’s leader in technology innovation and job creation.” CCA wholeheartedly agrees.
CCA has testified before Congress on multiple occasions on the need for infrastructure deployment reform. We support legislation like the RAPID Act that will offer common-sense relief to carriers facing bureaucratic hurdles that delay providing mobile broadband services to rural unserved and underserved areas.
In March of this year, the FCC recently adopted an Order reducing regulatory impediments faced by wireless carriers by clarifying that the deployment of small wireless facilities by non-federal entities are neither a federal undertaking nor a major federal action, and thus are not subject to review under the NHPA and NEPA. With input from state and local municipalities, Tribes, as well as rural, regional, and nationwide wireless carriers, the FCC took the first steps towards streamlining mobile infrastructure deployment processes, recognizing that the race to 5G is underway.
This Is Not your Parents’ Cell Tower
Gone are the days when expanding a mobile network meant exclusively tall towers. Today’s small cells support and enhance macro-site technology attaching to structures and poles that citizens would struggle to spot as they go about their everyday lives. CCA’s members are eager to embrace and integrate this latest technology in network infrastructure into their systems, including in rural areas, and reducing the barriers to their deployment will see practical results.
Small cells will be key to the service that carriers offer communities in rural America in an effort to meet growing consumer data demands. Eliminating costly federal reviews may provide carriers enough savings to deploy additional sites, strengthening and expanding their network service area. Expanded deployment is important to meeting the growing data demands of customers who, in some cases, have no residential broadband connection. Policies, like the RAPID Act and the recent FCC Order, could provide rural carriers enough savings to deploy additional small cells, offering consumers a more robust network service area.
Mobile Broadband Service and Environmental and Historic Preservation Are Not Mutually Exclusive
CCA members often live in the communities they serve and share in the commitment to preserving what makes their homes unique. CCA members have worked with Native American Tribes to deploy mobile infrastructure, in some cases configuring network sites to blend within cultural aesthetics. In turn, residents and visitors have access to mobile broadband services and the community retains its historical preservation. It is important to underscore that infrastructure reform need not pit wireless carriers against the municipalities and states they serve. Instead, streamlined processes will save resources for both carriers and government agencies by eliminating redundant and unnecessary reviews and spurring investment in local communities. Enhancing access to rights-of-way, reducing and eliminating fees, and streamlining siting processes will allow rural communities to economically connect exciting and innovative new technologies, including precision agriculture, telehealth, and the Internet of Things.
When it comes to the future of wireless networks, policy makers should first think small to get big results. After all, even the biggest journey starts with the smallest step. Small cells will offer the opportunity for immediate connectivity in rural America and set the stage for the rollout of next-generation mobile wireless services.
Director, Legislative Affairs, CCA