Next week, the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to move forward on the ‘Streamlining The Rapid Evolution And Modernization of Leading-edge Infrastructure Necessary to Enhance Small Cell Deployment Act” or the ”STREAMLINE Small Cell Deployment Act.” The goal of the legislation is to modernize the process for and speed the deployment of small antennas or “small cells” required in the building of 5G infrastructure, the next generation of wireless connectivity.
5G is not just a single system but rather is a system of systems that will work with previous technologies, and that will also require new infrastructure, including small antennas, as well as new investments in many miles of new fiber, cell towers and base stations. 5G will be a mash up of existing and new technologies, including Wi-Fi, and improvements in both wireless and wired connections to complete the communications loop. For example, 5G providers will continue to use wireline infrastructure to backhaul data between the backbone and the local networks. But, overall there will be more antennas in more places, allowing more wireless connectivity where it makes sense, particularly in cities.
This ubiquity of high speeds, a hundred times faster than 4G, will enable more of everything valued in broadband and open the world to promised technological advancements such as remote surgery, and tactile real-time feedback for robotics and self-driving vehicles. With so much to be coordinated, and demand ever increasing, artificial slow-downs due to government reviews that no longer fit the facts should not be tolerated.
Earlier this year the FCC pursued some reform, moving to spur real investment on the infrastructure of today and tomorrow by updating a federal regulatory scheme designed for completely different technology. But more is needed, not just for wireless deployments but also for fiber deployments, and not just federally but also by the states and localities across the country.
The Act itself has three primary pieces to help speed along deployment. Consumers should not be denied technological advancement because of a lack of cooperation with a locality, or because the reviewer sees the application as an opportunity to shake down the industry, as has happened time and time again for decades. So, when it comes to review of small cell siting applications, a 90-day deadline is created for localities to act. If the locality does not act, the application is “deemed granted.”
Again, to make sure that opportunism does not stall progress, the legislation ensures that fees for applications are publicly disclosed and include only the actual costs incurred by the locality. In a similar vein, the Act seeks to ensure that all siting applications are reviewed on a competitively neutral and technology neutral basis, not based on unfair restrictions that favor certain providers over others and, in the process, impede broadband deployment.
While 5G will be great for hyper local applications and will be abundant in smart cities, a smart America will take a broader and familiar approach, using a combination of new fiber and wireless. Other technologies, such as satellite, will also play a role. Just last week, in a hearing to discuss ways to promote greater broadband in rural areas, fixed wireless was discussed extensively. One company, Midco, has been able to provide 80 percent of its rural customers with high speed Internet using fixed wireless services.
To have more success like this in cities, suburbs, and rural communities, states and localities should continue in the same direction as the federal government. One easy improvement would be to require that conduits (plastic pipes thorough which wires can be pulled) be installed as a part of all appropriate infrastructure projects. This so called “dig once” approach saves money and also allows for more rapid deployment of new technologies. Improving access to rights of way on a technology-neutral basis would also be a step in the right direction. As with the STREAMLINE Act, access to rights of way should be accelerated, with applications to build out broadband infrastructure given priority.
Additionally, fees for right of way access should be minimized for all broadband facilities, regardless of the technology used, and no provider should have to pay multiple recurring fees for access to the same rights-of-way. Similarly, rates for the attachment of broadband equipment and lines to existing poles must be carefully considered to avoid arbitrary rate increases on only some providers, which slow deployment, increase costs to consumers, and inhibit fair competition.
Such technology neutrality has a great benefit – bringing all qualified broadband providers to the market enhances competition and ultimately benefits consumers. Both wireline and wireless infrastructure need to be considered, as both are necessary. While widely dispersed populations, such as those in rural areas of the United States, can be challenging to serve profitably, federal, state, and local governments can help in removing barriers. All said, streamlining processes for wireless installation is one piece of the puzzle that brings a robust broadband future to all of us.