FCC to limit fees cities can charge for 5G deployment


The Federal Communications Commission is about to pass rules that will limit how much local governments can charge wireless companies to attach small radios to utility poles, part of the deployment of next-generation 5G service.

The FCC says the plan, which will be voted on Wednesday at the agency’s monthly meeting, will streamline the process because it limits fees from local governments for utility pole attachments and speeds up the process for approving new infrastructure.

‘By updating our rules to make it easier to install wireless infrastructure, the Commission is taking another critical step to promote U.S. leadership in 5G wireless services,’ FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a blog post this month.

Critics argue, however, that the new rules leave little room for municipalities to negotiate with wireless carriers. On Tuesday, nine Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the FCC requesting the agency postpone its vote, saying the new rules could ‘stifle local policy innovation, including efforts to bridge the digital divide.’

Specifically, the FCC proposal would prevent cities and towns from charging more than it costs them to process applications and manage rights of way, which the FCC estimates at $270 a year per cell site. By contrast, cities such as New York City charge as much at $5,100 a year in some neighborhoods, but as little as $148 a year in areas where it’s trying to encourage broadband deployment, according to a report by Bloomberg. On average, carriers pay about $500 per pole per year, according to report published this summer from the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee.

The new rules are based on bills passed in 20 states that make it easier to put up so-called small cell radios. Traditionally, carriers used 200-foot towers to broadcast signals throughout an area. But because 5G technology transmits signals over shorter distances– several city blocks versus several miles –cells and radios are as small as backpacks. Because more radios are needed, they’re often deployed on existing structures, such as light poles or buildings.

To help carriers cut through red tape, states have passed laws limiting the fees localities can charge to process construction and permit applications for small cells. They also require local governments to approve or reject small cell deployments in a set period of time.



Now the FCC wants to make those policies consistent across the country.

The wireless industry lobby group CTIA says that reducing 5G deployment times alone could boost the US economy by $100 billion over the next 36 months, according to a blog post by Meredith Attwell Baker, who runs the group. She said other studies show that limiting the fees local communities can charge will ‘free up over $2.3 billion in private capital investment to deploy 5G further and faster.’

Some cities and towns in rural areas are hopeful reducing carriers’ costs in big cities will free up cash that can be used to expand networks in hard-to-reach areas of the country. On Monday, Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr released statements from more than a dozen state and local leaders supporting the proposal.

‘I believe that by reducing the high regulatory costs in the urban areas would leave more dollars to development in the rural areas,’ Duane Ankney, a Republican state senator for Montana, said in a statement. ‘Establishing timelines by modernizing the permitting process would also help in building out into the rural areas.’

But local government officials argue the rules will prevent them from performing basic oversight of these networks. And they say restricting fees could make it harder to fund local programs that ensure underserved parts of their communities get access to broadband.

For example, San Jose, California was able to negotiate a deal with AT&T, Verizon and Mobilitie to contribute $24 million over the next 10 years to the city’s Digital Inclusion Fund, which was designed to close a digital divide that’s prevented more than 95,000 residents from getting broadband Internet service at home.

San Jose officials told the FCC in a letter last week that the new rules could jeopardize the types of deals it made with the providers building its ‘smart streetlight’ network.

‘By limiting the amount of fees, the FCC is unfairly shifting the financial burden to cities,’ Sam Liccardo, San Jose’s mayor said in the letter. ‘Cities will be forced to absorb the true cost of reviewing the small cell installations by taking funds away from essential services and programs to cover the costs to perform small cell deployment reviews.’

5G is the next generation of cellular technology, which is expected to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. To put it in perspective, you’ll be able to download a season’s worth of any TV show in just seconds.

The promised speeds are far faster than what most people can get at home, but 5G will also better power the growing family of connected devices in our lives. The launch of 4G gave us Uber, Snapchat and livestreaming video. 5G potentially opens the door even wider to new innovations, like remote surgery and self-driving cars.

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