While federal policies play a major role in U.S. broadband deployment, local efforts can make all the difference in establishing a successful, sustainable network—especially when it comes to infrastructure for next-generation wireless networks.
Robust connectivity to advanced broadband will enable innovative new services for consumers, businesses, and governments, but building out this network will require additional access to rights of way, utility poles, and public structures. Streamlining these processes will be more important than ever, but some local communities may be overwhelmed by permit applications, unsure of the best way to proceed, or continue to think in terms of old franchise-agreement models that are no longer effective. The federal government has powerful, if blunt, tools available when it comes to removing barriers to broadband deployment. But genuine cooperation between industry and municipalities may be even more effective in lowering the cost of entry and enabling robust, long-term growth of broadband services.
ITIF hosted a conversation between FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn and ITIF president Dr. Robert Atkinson, which was followed by a panel discussion between industry and municipality representatives to discuss opportunities and challenges for spurring broadband deployment.
First, Atkinson and Clyburn discussed the importance of balancing local control over infrastructure construction with how fast networks should be able to gain approval for new tower sites. Clyburn opened by highlighting her #Solutions2020 policy forum and policy recommendations.
Clyburn recognized that 5G is a “game changer” and that localities may be having trouble going through the pile of applications for small-cell and distributed antenna systems. She stressed the importance of working with a variety of stakeholders to develop best practices to streamline the deployment of these systems. The Commissioner advised against a “zero to preemption” approach, and said she believes that overly-aggressive federal preemption could lead to litigation and a slowing of the approval process. She stressed that guidelines for 5G infrastructure are important, but that the Commission should let communities find the process that works best for them, and that there could not be a one-size-fits-all approach to the costs associated with new cell site approval.
Next, Atkinson and Clyburn discussed the tension between community interests and broader national interests that can arise from some localities’ telecom policy decisions. For example, a locality can certainly generate significant revenue from taxes on telecommunications services, but that tax would likely slow the national deployment of broadband. Here, Clyburn noted that §253 and §224 of Title II would allow the FCC to limit this type of behavior, but that Title II would likely be an unpopular method to resolve this issue.
Finally, the discussion turned toward the balance between targeted deployments that best support robust 5G, which may well prove a direct competitor to wired access, and full coverage of a locality. Targeted deployments of 5G will be more economical, and are more likely to result in the long-desired “third pipe” and more robust broadband competition, but may leave some communities waiting for these advanced technologies. Clyburn expressed her strong opposition to “redlining,” either direct or unintentional. Instead, she stated that she favors a policy to “plant the seeds” of digital literacy and affordability in underserved communities.
Doug Brake, senior telecom policy analyst at ITIF, opened the panel discussion, framing the conversation around the upcoming infrastructure items at the FCC before turning the floor over to the speakers for opening remarks.
Van Bloys, the Senior Government Affairs Counsel at the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), noted the enormous appetite for greater broadband deployment and laid out WIA’s main priorities. WIA wants to see increased access to utility poles, rights-of-way, and existing infrastructure to speed deployment; continued requirement of shared use and co-location; standardized processes for the approval of small cell sites; and tech-neutral definitions of what qualifies as a small cell.
Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, heavily emphasized the desire from the vast majority of communities for greater broadband deployment. She cited the red carpet that a large number of communities rolled out for Google’s initial Fiber proposal, but also expressed her concerns that too much preemption from the FCC would eliminate a locality’s ability to craft solutions for unique circumstances that vary from locality to locality.
Rebecca Hunter, External Affairs, Corporate Development & Strategy, Crown Castle, noted that engagement with localities has always been integral to Crown Castle’s business model, but felt that the extreme differences between what two adjacent cities might require for a tower site has made the approval process too cumbersome. Instead, she would like the FCC to establish a baseline expectation from which all parties could base their negotiations.
Hans Riemer, the at-large member of the Montgomery County council, noted that the Montgomery County zoning code is currently being rewritten to accommodate a shift from the dozens of cell sites currently within its borders to the approximately 600 to 800 they expect in the future. However, he argued against the FCC preempting too much of a local government’s authority, as this would remove the leverage necessary for a locality to successfully negotiate with incoming providers.
Bryan Tramont, a managing partner at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, expressed the sentiment that engagement between all parties is necessary to achieve a successful 5G buildout. Additionally, while there are myriad unknowns, the FCC can enable 5G implementation by clearing spectrum, transitioning the Universal Service Fund to broadband, and clarifying rules around access to public rights-of-way under §253. He also said that he feels the effective deployment of 5G might require more “connectivity by design,” potentially integrating access into buildings in the same way water and power are today.
During the Q&A portion, two key themes emerged. First, the panelists agreed that localities want to bring broadband into their communities, but that they needed a template to work from. Hunter noted that cities like Kansas City, Dallas, and Boston have pursued their own smart city arrangements, but that there is not yet a clear model for municipalities to emulate. Riemer noted that those cities have generally not included universal service principles in their agreements with carriers, and wondered how communities can achieve wider service coverage. Tramont felt that wireless service in particular has been good at bridging this gap, and Hovis commented that community resources could be made available to encourage buildout in these areas.
Second, the panelists concurred that application processing fees should be limited to the actual cost of the processing, but they sharply disagreed as to how the pricing structure should consider ongoing access to rights-of-way. Bloys pointed out that rights-of-way are essentially the only means for the deployment of a 5G service, that a locality essentially has a monopoly on the rights-of-way, and that this control could be abused when negotiating with carriers. However, Riemer pointed out that without the ability to charge “market” prices to carriers utilizing the taxpayer funded rights-of-way, carriers would have little incentive to negotiate service agreements that covered rural or low income areas. Tramont felt that the various federal programs designed to address these issues were a more appropriate avenue through which to deliver service, but the panelists did not come to a consensus on this particular issue.