• United States
by Jon Gold

FCC makes it easier to deploy 5G in cities

News Analysis
Jun 19, 20203 mins

FCC rules limit the restrictions cities can place on where 5G wireless base stations can be placed and what they look like.

5g smart city iot wireless
Credit: Getty Images

The FCC has made deploying 5G easier by limiting the influence cities have over whether the wireless infrastructure is too unsightly or obtrusive.

Recent rule changes enable the major mobile network operators to modify existing base stations and build new ones, in anticipation of a massive national rollout of 5G, which is expected to bring a number of new capabilities beyond simply increasing network speeds.

These include better handling of very dense traffic patterns and features designed to support a surge in traffic from connected devices that aren’t smartphones or computers, including smart-city tech like connected traffic lights and other types of IoT. But 5G will also require a lot of new construction as well as extensive modifications of existing sites.

The idea is to streamline the approval process for deploying new networking gear or modifying the existing infrastructure. The FCC rules provide for a 60-day “shot clock” on applications, meaning that municipalities must issue a firm approval or denial within that time frame, as well as pushing rules on concealment and aesthetic conditions closer to what the carriers would want. The shot clock was already part of FCC rules, but proved difficult to enforce.

The FCC ruling was eagerly anticipated by wireless providers, according to Brian Partridge, a research vice president at 451 Research.

“If you talk to any operator and the people responsible for network deployment they’ll say one of the biggest headwinds they face is the issue the FCC’s addressing here – local permitting and licensing,” he said.

Many municipalities, however, are unhappy with the streamlined version of the rules, saying that it erodes their legal authority over wireless infrastructure build-outs. Cities have disagreed with the wireless companies over the placement and size of equipment, particularly when it is obtrusively placed, unsightly or too close to the public.

Lawmakers from both political parties had urged the FCC to delay the vote on the updated rules, and two of the FCC’s own commissioners – Geoffrey Starks and Jessica Rosenworcel – spoke out on behalf of those city governments.

Several cities – including Boston, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. – detailed their complaints at length in a filing with the FCC, arguing that the rules changes are counterproductive, inconsistent with previous FCC rulemaking and offer partial carte blanche to the wireless companies to deploy equipment however it suits them.

According to Partridge, the timing of the changes was a factor in making them particularly unwelcome to municipalities.

“If you dig into some of the pushback, part of it is about the pandemic. The timing of this isn’t great,” he said. “Cities and municipalities are just getting themselves back to work, oftentimes not in their buildings. So the FCC is saying that this infrastructure is just that important.”

Patrick Filkins, a senior research analyst at IDC, said that the rulemaking took place in the context of a prolonged legal battle between cities and the major wireless carriers.

“Really, what you have here is the FCC has seen that the legal wrangling is still going on and they’re trying to be more focused and defined about how they help the carriers out and make it smoother to deploy this infrastructure,” he said.