Small cells

FCC Vote Could Cut 5G Small Cell Deployment Costs for US Operators

The FCC will vote Thursday on easing costly federal reviews on small cell deployments, a move that could cut costs -- for 4G and 5G -- by up to $2.43 billion between 2018 and 2026, according to Accenture.

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

DanJones 8/15/2018 | 2:59:35 PM
A DC Court has just stopped a stay on this revision of rules. This March revision of sitting wireless infrastructure rules can go ahead according to a D.C Court. Its supposed to cut around $1.6 billion of review costs from small cell deployment, according to Commissioner Carr.
Gabriel Brown 3/26/2018 | 9:23:58 AM
Re: Opportunity for Over-Compliance? There seems to be quite a lot on Twitter about how poorly designed some of the small cell installations are, aesthetically speaking. I wouldn't like either of these outside my house, or on my local streets.


DanJones 3/26/2018 | 8:46:52 AM
Re: Opportunity for Over-Compliance? Well, we'll have to see what state & local govt do won't we?
Rhodes1 3/26/2018 | 3:37:37 AM
Opportunity for Over-Compliance? The qualification of 3 cu ft (approx 81L) is already a huge improvement over utility pole deployments that frankly baffle european readers (fridge-sized cabinets (>12 cu ft 0.3 cbm) plus ancilliaries and antennas.  

From an (internal) planning perspective, it makes sense to deploy the same standardised solutions. One that is streamlined and easy to deploy will also be well-perceived by citizens.

So asking for a full set of docs for 100s of essentially identical sites across a city makes little sense. If the small cells are declared and assessed as a cohort, the enviromnental impact of each one can readily be assessed, and historic context is unlikely to change significantly from one lamppost to the next, plus the costs associated with gathering information - be that paperwork or site visits will not be linear to the number of deployments. Only a few locations are likely to merit any examination.

If cities do not see carriers/MNOs as cash cows, and they in turn respect the jobs that city employees have to do, the industry will be on a better footing.

DanJones 3/22/2018 | 11:30:11 PM
Re: Not over yet Hahaha, none of this stuff gets resolved quickly!
Duh! 3/22/2018 | 4:05:58 PM
Not over yet As expected, the vote was 3-2 along party lines.

While the principle behind the Order is entirely reasonable, the Order itself runs rough-shod over cities and tribal interests. Between the Federalism issues (see Nixon v. Missourri Municipal League), Native American issues (keeping in mind that tribal lands are sovereign), and procedural fumbles, I'd guarantee that this follows the Internet Freedom (sic) order into court, and quite likely gets overturned.

DanJones 3/22/2018 | 3:23:49 PM
Re: years Sorry fixed, 36 mill in 2017. 241 mill in 2018. Estimated 2.43B in savings over 2018 to 2026. I tried to find some estimated figures for local and state regulatory costs for the same period nothing leapt out though.
brooks7 3/22/2018 | 2:10:11 PM
years Dan,

You have 2018 listed 2x in years.

Question:  Okay it saves $2B.  On a total of $20B (10%) or $200B (1%).  Just trying to get a feel on the expected CAPEX over the next 10 years for 5G small cells.  This would help the context.

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