There are several technologies being considered for developing the next generation of communications infrastructure. Among those being studied and deployed are the use of TV white spaces for rural broadband connectivity; wireless fixed broadband initiatives; satellite broadband, and the development of fifth generation (5G) technologies for mobile communications.
According to a March 12, 2018 study by Accenture, U.S. wireless carriers spent $36 million in costs for National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) reviews for small cell deployment in 2017. Based on an estimated 3,700 small cells requiring review, this amounts to $9,730 per small cell in NHPA/NEPA review costs. These are just two reviews that are required for communications infrastructure deployment across the country.
On March 31, 2017, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed legislation paving the way for 5G technology deployment throughout the state. This law, the first of its kind passed by a state government, streamlines the permitting process and reduces the administrative burdens to build the small cell infrastructure necessary for 5G deployment. According to Gov. Ducey, “The legislation, by making it easier to add capacity to existing wireless networks, and thus, improve our infrastructure, will go a long way in solidifying our reputation as a state where new and exciting tech companies can set up shop and flourish.”
Other states are passing similar initiatives including Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina, Texas, Rhode Island, and Virginia. While each state has its own individual take on how to best enable 5G deployment, there are four common elements to each of the bills they passed: 1) expedited timeline for application processing; 2) reduced and capped fees for right-of-way use and applications; 3) presumed application approval and limited scope for local governments to deny requests; and, 4) prohibited or limited zoning authority over attachments and new poles.
Yet, streamlining processes at the state level is only one part of the equation for reducing the regulatory footprint on telecommunications. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr, who has led the charge at the agency on 5G deployment, has indicates that deploying 5G across the country could add 3 million new jobs, $275 billion in private sector network investment, and result in $500 billion being added to the GDP. But he has also noted that “A key obstacle [to 5G] is our country’s outdated infrastructure regulations, which were written for previous generations of wireless technology.”
Modernizing infrastructure regulations will be key to moving any new technology forward, whether wireless or wireline. On March 1, 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the agenda items for the March monthly FCC meeting. Noting that many of the FCC’s rules are designed for large cell towers rather than low-powered small cells, among the items under consideration at the March 22, 2018 meeting will be consideration of a Second Report and Order to clarify and modify procedures for NHPA/NEPA reviews for wireless infrastructure deployments. It is hoped that reducing the number of these types of reviews will reduce costs and speed deployment of new wireless networks.