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The FCC’s Approach to Small Cells Strips Municipalities of Rights, Claim NATOA Panelists

Jericho Casper



Photo of small cell by Rohanmkth used with permission

June 29, 2020 — Wireless infrastructure deployment, particularly for small cell or distributed antenna systems, promise smart city innovation abilities. But this rollout is likely to be stymied until resolution of disputes between industry and municipalities.

Local officials are upset that federal intervention – by Congress and by the Federal Communications Commission – is hampering their ability to govern their own rights-of-way.

Panelists of a webinar hosted by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors on Monday argued that local governments must take proactive steps to maintain their influence in negotiations with industry over small cell deployment.

Although the FCC would prefer to ignore them, municipalities do have rights concerning the deployment of wireless infrastructure facilities. In particular, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which preserves local zoning authority over the “placement, construction, and modification of wireless facilities.”

“While current policy gives local governments rights, there are limitations to these rights,” said Michael Roberts, an attorney with the Cohen Law Group.

Localities feel they are being squeezed by federal preemption from Washington

Localities rights were severely restricted in 2018, when the Federal Communications Commission adopted a ruling defining small cells and placing a number of restrictions on how state and local governments can manage the deployment of small cells.

The 2018 order built upon prior rules, and which also raised serious concerns from local governments.

In particular, the most recent order has been critiqued by municipalities as a blatant effort by the agency to strengthen the hand of carriers in negotiations with local governments over small cell deployment.

It was further labeled an attempt to limit the ability of local government to negotiate in the public interest around small cells.

Many local governments and national municipal associations, including NATOA, responded by appealing the order, denouncing its preemption of local power.

The FCC justified the order by stating that it was intended to remove regulatory hurdles impeding the implementation of 5G systems.

Limitations established by the order constrain municipalities’ vis-à-vis wireless infrastructure companies

Among a number of things, the order establishes a working definition for small wireless facilities, or small cells.

Robust DAS and small cell networks require at least one small cell to be deployed every few meters, and the order preempts local governments from establishing certain aesthetic requirements.

It rules all aesthetic requirements for small wireless facilities must be reasonable, no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments and published in advance.

Roberts advised panelists about the importance of utilizing clear language when writing aesthetic requirements, as providers may be able to use vague language to avoid unclear aesthetic requirements.

The order further defines the size of small cells, stating all antenna equipment can be no more than a cumulative 28 cubic feet in volume.

“That could be up to the size of a refrigerator,” Roberts warned. While the cells are termed “small,” that often is not the case.

The wireless industry often refers to small cells as the size of “pizza box,” but Roberts’ point about 28 cubic feet shows that federal rules allow for the size of a refrigerator that presumably could hold many, many pizza boxes.

The order also puts limitations on the fees that local governments can charge, which Roberts regarded as the biggest impact that it will have on local governments.

The order finds that fees localities charge operators must, again, be “reasonable”.

“Local governments may exceed these approximate cost ceilings by conducting a defensible cost study,” said Tripp May, shareholder at Telecom Law Firm.

Further, the agency’s order creates new shot clocks to control the length of the review process for applications for small wireless facilities.

Shot clocks govern how quickly localities have to review industry applications for installing small cell sites, as all approvals, permits, and agreements must be completed within shot clock time frames.

The industry is lobbying for more legislation that would allow them to immediately begin small cell construction if a locality does not review their application before the shot clock expires, panelists said.

Takeaway messages for municipalities and for the wireless infrastructure industry

As to the FCC’s order, however, petitions filed against it allege that it exceeded the agency’s authority, arguing it largely preempts local governments from regulating their small cell equipment.

Oral arguments in opposition of the order were held on February 20, but the court’s decision has yet to be announced.

“There is a great deal of control at the local level,” Roberts said. “Impose regulations and understand the rights and abilities of your community.”

Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.


Telecoms Should Actively Build Broadband Infrastructure Through Road Developments

Michigan Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist said telecoms should be right there alongside new road builds and improvements.

Derek Shumway



Screenshot of Garlin Gilchrist via YouTube

April 15, 2021 – Telecom and municipal partnerships should be forged when new roads are built so fiber can be laid as construction begins, Michigan’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Garlin Gilchrist II, said Tuesday.

A good time to expand and improve broadband is when roads are being paved and improved, he said Tuesday at the Connected Nation Telehealth Summit. ISPs can play a larger role during this process and increase competition for consumer benefit as more options become available, he noted.

Beyond physical infrastructure needs, ISPs should work more and better with education and healthcare providers, the conference heard.

Schools, libraries, and all levels of government from local to national need to be aware of their roles and responsibilities to close the digital divide, Gilchrist said.

With no internet, telehealth would be in danger when critical response teams cannot be there in person to tend to a patient’s needs, he said, adding investing in the internet is the same as investing in education and health. No matter your zip code, or where you live, or how bad the pandemic has affected daily life, everyone should have the means to access affordable broadband that actually meets their needs.

“Different partnerships are needed,” said Sarah Tennant, sector development director and cyber initiatives at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Gilchrist said he recognized the impact generational racial disparity and inequality had on the lives of people of color in Michigan and across the country. Lack of broadband for people of color can be seen as another form of racial injustice.

In trying to tackle that, he said connecting the underconnected with broadband is a top priority of the state.

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Openreach Partners With STL For Fiber Build

Openreach aims to get 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by later this decade.

Tim White



Screenshot of STL's Ankit Agarwal via YouTube

April 14, 2021 – STL, or Sterlite Technologies Limited, announced Wednesday a partnership with Openreach, the United Kingdom’s largest digital network business to expand its “Full Fiber” broadband network across the UK.

STL, a global network designer from India, will provide millions of kilometers of fiber to develop Openreach’s goal of 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by late 2020s.

“This collaboration with Openreach strengthens a 14-year-old technology and supply relationship between the two companies and further reinforces STL’s commitment to the UK market,” the company said in a statement.

Openreach will use STL’s Opticonn solution, a fiber and cable build that the company claims offers better performance and faster installation, according to the release statement. The company will also utilize STL’s new celesta ribbon cable that boasts a capacity of up to 6,912 fibers, the statement added.

“Our Full Fiber network build is going faster than ever. We need partners like STL on board to not only help sustain that momentum, but also to provide the skills and innovation to help us go even further,” Openreach’s Kevin Murphy said in a statement. “We know the network we’re building can deliver a host of social and economic benefits – from boosting UK productivity to enabling more home working and fewer commuting trips – but we’re also trying to make this one of the greenest network builds in the world.”

Ankit Agarwal, CEO of connectivity solutions business at STL, said, “our customized, 5G-ready optical solutions are ideally suited for Openreach’s future-proof network requirements and we believe they will enable next-gen digital experiences for homes and businesses across UK. This partnership will be a major step towards our mission of transforming billions of lives through digital networks,” he said in a statement.

Openreach’s network now reaches 4.5 million premises, offering gigabit-capable connection through a range of competing providers on the network, and the company is building at a rate of about 42 thousand new homes and businesses a week, according to the release.

The UK parliament has set a goal to get 85 percent of UK homes and businesses access to gigabit-speed broadband by 2025. They reported that as of September 2020, 27 percent of UK premises received that connection speed, and 95 percent have access to “superfast broadband” which the government defines as at least 30 megabits per second download speed.

Parliament acknowledged that although “superfast broadband is sufficient for most household needs today, the demand for data-intensive services such as online video streaming is increasing and can push the limits of a superfast broadband connection. The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for widely available and reliable digital connectivity.”

STL is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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John Curtis, R-Utah, Opens Up About Future of Fiber and Broadband Challenges

Utah Republican Rep. John Curtis speaks about broadband rollout, education and bills more than a year into the pandemic.

Derek Shumway



Photo of John Curtis from his website

April 13, 2021 – Provo, Utah has made significant progress with its Google Fiber partnership, and representative John Curtis, R-Utah, hopes the federal government is paying attention.

Broadband Breakfast spoke with Curtis on Monday to discuss broadband and the lessons he’s taken from the pandemic. He said that the city of Provo is on track with its broadband efforts and that its programs are working. Having formerly served as city mayor for Provo from 2010 to 2017, Curtis oversaw the purchase by Google Fiber of iProvo, the city’s existing fiber internet network.

Announced in a press release on February 16, two of Curtis’ bills, the Federal Broadband Deployment in Unserved Areas Act, and the Rural Broadband Permitting Efficiency Act of 2021, were introduced to facilitate broadband deployment on federal lands and close the digital divide in both rural and urban areas. The bills called to “streamline permitting presses,” as duplicative regulations and inefficient practices have been hampering broadband development thus far, he said.

Federal, municipal regulations a constraint on deployment

Curtis was asked where he thought unnecessary red tape needed to be removed to fulfill rural and urban broadband objectives. He said 90 percent of the rural land in his district is owned by the federal government, making regulation heavy and complicated. In some instances, public lands have taken up to nine years to allow permitting for broadband, and in broadband terms, that’s a lifetime. “We don’t have nine years to get down into these parts of the district,” he said.

To visualize this, if there is an existing asphalt road, broadband cannot run alongside it because it is treated as if there was trench dug underneath Delicate Arch, a historical rock formation, a regulated territory.  If rural roads are approved to be built, rural broadband should be approved in a similar and appropriate manner, Curtis said. He added companies like Google, who have vast resources, are still slowed down by the government.

And it’s not the federal government that is always behind roadblocks, but the municipal government can sometimes get in the way. A struggle over telecoms putting up equipment on municipal-owned poles, which are required for broadband and wireless deployment, has been playing out across the country.

Education needs support structure at home

As the country is more than one year into the pandemic, the importance of having adequate and affordable broadband in Utah households is critical, especially for education, Curtis said. Curtis said that the more disadvantaged a household is, the less likely it is to have good internet connectivity. While there are tremendous uses for virtual resources, Utah children need a support structure at home, and not every home has that.

Having poor support at home to stay connected for school, work, and health needs is virtually as bad as not even having a device to connect to the internet in the first place. A benefit of having Google Fiber in Provo, Curtis said, is that households see their internet costs come down and speeds go up as competition is benefitting consumers. Cities are averse to risk, and sometimes lack the capital to invest in broadband, but technology changes so fast that it requires constant upkeep, he said.

Not just about the money

Asked about his thoughts on recent federal legislation, including the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the Biden’s $100-billion infrastructure plan (Jobs Act) for broadband, Curtis said it is important to invest in these initiatives, but simply throwing money at the problem won’t solve anything.

He said he wished he could bring Biden to Provo to take a look at Provo’s broadband progress, adding that “creativity and hard work make up for a multitude of sins.”

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