With 5G talks heating up around the nation, and companies taking active steps to increase its rollout, the Federal Communications Commission is primed to take action. The recently released Second Report and Order on Accelerating Wireless Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment aims to reduce the costs associated with the deployment of small cells (wireless micro towers) by reducing the costs associated with tower placement review.
Last week, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr set the stage for the Commission’s review of federal historic preservation and environmental protection procedures, which impact the cost of deploying small cells. Based on filings by several national wireless carriers, the current rules under the National Historic Preservation Act (“NHPA”) and the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) contain fee structures better suited for large wireless towers which, when applied to small cells, increase costs for rollout, reducing the overall expansion of 5G in certain areas.
According to reporting by Fierce Wireless, Commissioner Carr supports the notion that “advancing 5G deployments in the U.S. could add 3 million new jobs, $275 billion in private sector network investment and result in $500 billion added to the GDP, but that outdated regulatory rules are holding back 5G investments and deployments.”
With precious jobs, innovative potential, and investment opportunities in the mix, its no wonder the FCC is poised to act. While estimates vary, the current NEPA and NHPA review standards cost as much as roughly $8,000 per pole (or new cell site), and up to $45 million per year for carriers attempting to deploy small cells. The danger with this level of continued cost lies in the attendant impact on available capital for continued network investments and the amount of time it takes for actual deployment.
Last year, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a report outlining the ways 5G could increase access to high-speed broadband and “drive innovation, local economic development, and job growth.” More 5G could mean better access to health and education outcomes, as well as new ecosystems for increase entrepreneurial inclusivity, particularly in communities of color. The flip side, however, is that delays in 5G rollout, particularly to communities most in need, can increase the digital divide. Some of the states most significantly affected by current NEPA and NHPA rules – Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Texas – are substantially populated by people of color, particularly in dense urban areas that could truly benefit from more robust networks with 5G capabilities.
While Carr’s proposal addresses the wireless component of 5G rollout, complete solutions for advanced, high-speed broadband networks contain wireline components as well. Not only does WiFi support between 60-70% of all wireless traffic, but rich, fiber networks are used as constant supports to maintain high-speed, quality broadband service. The symbiotic relationship between wireless and wireline solutions will be fostered through policies acknowledging the important role both play in securing our 5G future.
Carr takes an important step in reducing the cost of 5G, but it will take additional effort from Congress and the private sector as well, in partnership with municipal governments, to ensure ubiquitous 5G access becomes a reality in America.