The Federal Communications Commission recently acted to promote 5G deployment in its wireless infrastructure Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order by easing the regulatory burdens of the siting processes for small wireless facilities, or small cells. These small cells—new for many state and local regulators—will connect Americans to next-generation broadband as innovators compete to roll out 5G service across the country. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr, who was appointed to take the lead on the agency’s wireless infrastructure proceeding, have made enormous progress to date in creating an updated siting regime supportive of new types of deployment.
5G will create billions of dollars of new opportunities for Americans and millions of new jobs. It will bring advanced services, including the Internet of Things, telemedicine, autonomous vehicles, and connected agriculture. It carries the potential to transform every sector of the economy. But 5G is not possible without a robust, densified, and high-capacity network. Deploying a 5G network is an immense, resource-intensive task that requires thousands of small cell antennas; from larger cities to rural communities. It is estimated that wireless providers will need to deploy approximately 800,000 small cells in the next few years to enable 5G.
The FCC understands these deployment challenges. It also understands that the U.S. is in a global race to 5G—and winning has big stakes. As usual, private industry is best positioned to deploy the infrastructure needed to win and is poised to invest close to $300 billion over the next several years. Taking steps to enable this investment is America’s best way forward. At the same time, local governments have a special interest in protecting and enriching their cities and towns.
It is no easy task for the federal government to promote a new service while respecting the authority of state and local governments. There is no simple equation to balance the authority of local officials, friends, and neighbors, with our shared national interest in 5G. However, the FCC has found this balance in the past, and it does so again in its recent order. The FCC preserves the authority of local and state officials while also providing clarity to eliminate many of the existing barriers to wireless deployment.
For instance, the order carefully protects the authority of local governments over community aesthetics. It preserves local aesthetic requirements as long as they are reasonable, nondiscriminatory, objective, and published in advance. These safeguards give local leaders oversight of their communities while preventing some communities from inhibiting deployment. The FCC has also given local governments guidance on the length of time it should take to evaluate a new small cell deployment. Now, instead of uncertainty, businesses that deploy new 5G networks can plan around a timetable with confidence, while local governments can structure their reviews in a way that makes sense and still recover their costs.
In the order, the FCC has constructed a unified, national framework based on commonsense infrastructure policies. These policies have been supported by leaders from states and local governments across the country and are grounded in Sections 332 and 253 of the Communications Act. This unified framework, and its common sense guardrails, will decrease the cost of deployment and respect the needs of states—all while expanding the reach of new networks and spurring even more investment. In fact, it is estimated that the FCC’s reform efforts could lead to more than $2.3 billion in additional wireless investment in rural and suburban areas. This means one thing: vibrant 5G networks across the country at an even faster pace.
Mr. Clark is a former state legislator and utility regulator in his home state of North Dakota. He is a past President of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC). Mr. Clark also served as a utility regulator at the federal level during his time as a FERC Commissioner.