Specifically, the FCC order says that National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and National Historical Preservation Act (NHPA) review rules -- passed in 1969 -- should only apply to macro cell sites rather than localized small cells and distributed antenna systems (DAS), which the FCC says are used indoors -- in spaces up to the size of a stadium -- or in local outdoor areas.
Accenture says that NEPA and NHPA reviews account today for 29% -- or $9,730 -- of the average costs of a small cell deployment. That accounts for $36 million in costs in 2017, and will rise to $241 million in 2018, the year when the first 5G small cells are expected to be deployed.
Indeed, 5G is the motivation for the FCC's order, as it expects AT&T and Verizon to deploy "10 to 100 times more antenna locations than previous 3G and 4G networks" with carriers deploying more "small wireless facilities" in the next three-and-a-half years than the "macro facilities" (cell towers) that the industry has deployed in the past 35 years.
"It would be impractical and extremely costly to subject each individual small facility deployment to the same requirements that the Commission imposes on macro towers," the FCC said in the order documents. "There is also no legitimate reason why next-generation technology should be subjected to many times the regulatory burdens of its 3G and 4G predecessors."
The agency argues that such NEPA and NHPA are not currently applied to other small facility radio equipment such as WiFi routers and consumer cell signal boosters.
"We conclude that any marginal benefit that NHPA and NEPA review might provide ... would be outweighed by the benefits of more efficient deployment of small wireless facilities and the countervailing costs associated with such review," the agency stated. "Accordingly, the public interest is not served by requiring small cell facilities to continue to adhere to this costly review process."
To be counted as a small wireless facility, the FCC says that a small cell antenna must be three cubic feet or less, mounted on an existing building -- or new structure -- at a height of 50 feet or lower, including antennas. The agency will allow higher deployments in "cases where such deployment is only a modest (10 percent) departure from the height of the preexisting facility" or surrounding buildings. (See Bright Lights, Smart City: A 'Street Furniture' Exploration and Broadband Has a Problem on the Pole.)
The new rules wouldn't apply to macro cell towers, which use geographic wide-area licenses and which are subject to the Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) program. The ASR program requires owners of antenna structures to register with the FCC any antenna structure that requires notice of proposed construction to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In general, this includes structures that are taller than 200 feet above ground level or that may interfere with the flight path of a nearby airport, according to the FCC.
The FCC's proposed new ruling is another sign of the federal government trying to make it easier for operators to deploy this brave new world of 5G wireless. Although 5G technology -- in particular mobile millimeter wave 5G small cells -- will only cover 100 to 200 meters across a city block, with smaller radios and antennas, such a ruling is likely to bring NIMBY (not in my backyard) naysayers to the fore once again.
Despite any federal changes, however, cities and states still hold much of the power in controlling laws and regulations over small cells, as Light Reading has previously reported. (See Battle Begins for Small Cells, Smart Cities.)
— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading