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FCC rules on 5G cellphone upgrade spark antenna fight

Dan Boylan The Washington TimesFebruary 15, 2019

A turf war between federal regulators and local jurisdictions is brewing over the installation of hundreds of thousands of cellphone towers to upgrade to 5G.

The fifth generation of wireless internet would require more than 400,000 “small-cell” antennas to be placed fairly close together, a situation that officials in Portland, Oregon, have called an eyesore.

What’s more, the Federal Communications Commission in September drastically cut how much municipalities can charge wireless carriers to install and maintain the antennas. The FCC also shortened the time frame for cities to approve installation permits.

More than 80 cities and counties have filed lawsuits challenging the new FCC rules, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco is expected to render a decision in the lead case in April.

The technology promises to deliver more data faster to mobile devices with fewer delays and interruptions. And FCC officials have framed 5G’s years-long rollout as akin to a technological arms race with China, ordering expedited installation permits. The new rule allows municipalities 60 days to approve attaching small cells to existing structures and 90 days for raising new towers or poles.

But the bigger blow to cities is the agency limiting fees for installation to $100 per unit and maintenance to $270 per unit per year. Previously, jurisdictions had charged companies thousands of dollars per unit.

Cities and counties say they want the technological upgrade, but they cite the FCC’s order as unconstitutional and illegal.

In an email to The Washington Times, Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, accused the agency of reinterpreting “federal law as part of its efforts to ‘nationalize’ city and other local public property in its quest to grant special and unlawful rights to private enterprises that seek to occupy local rights-of-ways and public property for small cell deployment.”

“Instead of working with local governments to win the global race to 5G, the FCC is forcing cities to race to the courthouse to defend the most basic of local government rights the authority to manage and seek fair compensation from private users that seek to employ public assets, owned and paid for by local taxpayers, for their personal profit without any obligation to serve all of the community whose assets are occupied,” Mr. Cochran said.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures have joined a growing list of jurisdictions, including six of the country’s 10 largest cities New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and San Jose, California in opposing the FCC order.

When asked for comment, the FCC referred The Washington Times to a speech Chairman Ajit Pai delivered in September during a White House summit on 5G intended to “underscore the importance of this issue and of moving quickly.”

“Time is of the essence,” Mr. Pai said. “We are not alone in our pursuit of 5G. The U.S. is in the lead, thanks to our private sector as well as the work of the FCC, this administration and Congress. But China, South Korea and many other countries are eager to claim this mantle.”

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr also has raised concerns about the speed of the 5G rollout across America.

“Being first matters,” Mr. Carr said in a statement in September. “It determines whether capital will flow here, whether innovators will start their new businesses here, and whether the economy that benefits is the one here.”

‘$2 billion in red tape’

ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have lauded the FCC’s moves, calling them needed to justify their massive investments in 5G infrastructure.

According to the industry trade group CTIA, wireless providers eventually will invest as much as $275 billion in upgrading networks to 5G across the U.S.

In addition, a recent study by the consulting firm Accenture estimates that small-cell technology will create “more than 20,000 jobs and attract $2 billion in capital investment, resulting in nearly $4 billion in economic growth over the next few years.”

The Accenture study also estimates that the 5G upgrade will require 769,000 small-cell antennas to be erected across the country from 2018 to 2026. At the end of 2017, about 320,000 4G cell sites were in service meaning about 449,000 new antennas will be raised in the upgrade.

The 5G network will require more antennas that are placed closer together than its 4G predecessor to allow for uninterrupted, high-speed communications between mobile devices. The small-cell antennas, which can be as large as a refrigerator, must be dispersed roughly one site per city block. Many can be affixed to streetlights or utility poles.

Telecommunications experts say that 5G’s data-dense technology will allow more users to access high-speed wireless networks at the same time, provide mobile devices with more information and create opportunities to expand the use of virtual and augmented reality. It could help self-driving cars “talk” to each other and traffic monitors, allow doctors to conduct medical procedures on patients thousands of miles away, and help businesses automate their workspaces.

The FCC’s reduction in cities’ antenna fees has cut ”$2 billion in red tape” for America’s largest wireless providers, the agency’s Mr. Carr said.

Ted Wheeler, mayor of Portland, Oregon, was the first to legally challenge the new rules. Portland, which charges as much as $3,000 in annual fees on cell towers, is angry not only over lost potential revenue but also because he says the small cells will be eyesores, especially in historic neighborhoods.

Other cities have voiced similar concerns.

The National Conference of State Legislatures said it “supports timely deployment of wireless technologies.”

But its officials also “remain concerned about the role of the FCC in an area of traditionally state and local authority,” Abbie Gruwell, the group’s communications director, told The Times in an email.

“They [The FCC] are saying that a street corner at Lincoln Plaza in New York City is worth the same as a street corner in Lincoln, Nebraska, which is not the case,” said Gerry Lederer, an attorney at Best Best Krieger, which is providing counsel to the cities and counties involved in the lawsuits.

Verizon spokesman Paul Vasington recently described headlines about the FFC order as overblown, saying telecom carriers must gather “input” from cities and counties.

At least 20 states already have addressed streamlining processes for small-cell rights-of-way and permitting, according to NCSL, with more states aiming to tackle the issue this year.

Mr. Pai and his chief of staff, Matthew Berry, have argued that the FCC is on safe legal ground. At a telecommunications conference last week, Mr. Berry reiterated that the new rules “respect local control.”

Still, resistance is brewing. Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, introduced a bill last month to roll back the FCC’s 5G order.

And last week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee began investigating the issue, with Chairman Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, saying that the FCC may have improperly “leveraged its power as a regulator” to save wireless providers billions of dollars in 5G building costs.

Meanwhile, the 5G rollout is underway in many cities.

Mike Lynch, director of Boston’s broadband and cable, recently said 80 percent of small-cell applications the city receives are decided upon in 10 days or less.

That turnaround time is within the FCC’s new rules and means Boston has “given the industry what they wanted” speed and certainty to build the 5G network, Mr. Lynch said.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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